Thursday, April 29, 2010


“As for omens, there is no such thing as an omen. Destiny does not send us heralds. She is too wise or too cruel for that.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Lord Henry Wotton)

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“One’s days were too brief to take the burden of another’s errors on one’s shoulders. Each man lived his own life, and paid his own price for living it. The only pity was one had to pay so often for a single fault. One had to pay over and over again, indeed. In her dealings with man Destiny never closed her accounts.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Thursday, April 22, 2010

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

I read it for real. Here’s what I said about it while listening to the audiobook version.

From July 11, 2005:

The audiobook I’m listening to now is All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. I’m enjoying it. The plot is fairly tight, with a fairly small story that is well told. I’m waiting for some secret to be revealed, and that’s helping me to move through some of the scenes, but I’m not sure if the secret is even there. John Grady’s relationship with his father is strained, that much is clear, but if the reason why was revealed early in the book I must have missed it. I keep expecting it to get mentioned, but it never does and only seldom gets referred to in a non-revealing way. It’ll be funny if this turns out to be all in my head because it’s really what I’m enjoying the most.

McCarthy is really good at moving characters through the mechanics of a scene and more impressively through the mechanics between scenes, and it all keeps the reader’s attention off the hidden secret and on the mechanical action. He’s very matter-of-fact about it. John Grady waited at the train station for thirty minutes then went back to the hotel and ordered some room service. He tipped the waiter three pesos. In my fiction, that transition would have taken another chapter. He gets it done in two sentences that have just enough detail to feel real and keep you connected to the story, but not so much detail as to devolve into John Grady’s thoughts, where the secret lays hidden. Even if I’ve read this wrong and there is no secret at the end, I think I’ve learned something I can use in my own fiction.

- - - - - - - - - -

John Grady didn’t get the girl. She chose her family over him just as her great aunt had said she would, although she slept with him one more time as John Grady thought she would. Now he’s risking his life in some desperate attempt to get his horse back. He’s been shot, he’s taken some hostile prisoners and now a posse is starting to approach. There was some glimpse into John Grady’s inner thoughts when he knew he had lost her, but everything else has been strictly mechanical. It got a little tedious during the shootout over the horse, but otherwise has been very well done. It’s almost as if the absence of comment on emotion and the focus on mechanical action stresses the emotional toll John Grady has paid. It’s very masculine in its style. Acting irrationally without dwelling on his feelings.

- - - - - - - - - -

It wasn’t a posse tracking John Grady. It was a group of men who lived in the wilderness and they helped him escape. He parted ways from the Mexican captain and made his way back to Texas where he eventually told his whole story to a judge in order to keep the rights to Blevins’ horse, which he also found at the place that was keeping his horse. Now he’s picked up a lead on a Reverend Jimmy Blevins, and is taking the horse back there. There was a powerful exchange between John Grady and the judge when John Grady said he didn’t want to be thought of as anything special because he had killed that guy in the Mexican prison. That guy was a bastard, and John Grady only did it to protect his own life, but he still couldn’t stop thinking about him and wondered if he had been destined to be killed or if John Grady had upset some delicate balance in the universe by killing him. There has been talk about fate and God scattered throughout the book, mostly between John Grady and Rawlins, but in other places, too. Makes me think that it’s one of those hidden themes.

- - - - - - - - - -

The Reverend is not related to the Jimmy Blevins John Grady knew. There’s an interesting exchange between John Grady and the Reverend’s wife, talking about how the Reverend’s voice goes out over the radio to everywhere, even to Mars, and how he heals people who put their hands on the radio when he’s talking because his voice is there, and that’s all that’s needed. Then John Grady returns Rawlins’ horse to Rawlins, attends the funeral of his Mexican wet nurse, and the book ends with John Grady riding off across the country, into what is to come. There is no big secret revealed at the end as I suspected there wouldn’t be, but I enjoyed the book on a lot of other levels. I think I’ll read it for real someday.

Reviewing my own words five years later, I’m amazed how many things I picked up on while just listening to it that I was able to pick up on again while reading it with pen in hand.

Things like McCarthy’s skill at moving characters through a scene without bogging it down. I jealously noted dozens of good examples in the text, and they generally fell into two categories. Scenes with lots of meaning and emotion for the characters, packed down to their barest essences, but still powerful and deeply moving.

When he came back down through the dark to the barn the five horses were standing under the pecan trees at the far side of the house. They hadnt been unsaddled and in the morning they were gone. The following night she came to his bed and she came every night for nine nights running, pushing the door shut and latching it and turning in the slatted light at God knew what hour and stepping out of her clothes and sliding cool and naked against him in the narrow bunk all softness and perfume and the lushness of her black hair falling over him and no caution to her at all. Saying I dont care I dont care. Drawing blood with her teeth where he held the heel of his hand against her mouth that she not cry out. Sleeping against his chest where he could not sleep at all and rising when the east was already gray with dawn and going to the kitchen to get her breakfast as if she were only up early.

And scenes where characters move through the mechanics of some action, not spelling out every detail. but providing just enough to put you there and get you cleanly to the next scene.

Their breakfast was a thin pozole and nothing more and afterward they were simply turned out into the yard to fend for themselves. They spent the whole of the first day fighting and when they were finally shut up in their cell at night they were bloody and exhausted and Rawlins’ nose was broken and badly swollen.

I read things like that and find myself wondering how many pages I would have spent trying to convey the same amount of information. Note to self—sometimes you need to go into a lot of detail, but most times you don’t.

Another thing that I heard in the audiobook which came through even stronger in the text was the periodic talk about fate and God—not enough to be heavy-handed, but just enough to be eerie and prescient.

You think God looks out for people? Said Rawlins.

Yeah. I guess He does. You?

Yeah. I do. Way the world is. Somebody can wake up and sneeze somewhere in Arkansas or some damn place and before you’re done there’s wars and ruination and all hell. You dont know what’s goin to happen. I’d say He’s just about got to. I dont believe we’d make it a day otherwise.

I wrote in the margin on that one: “Will God watch out for Rawlins?” And, like a lot of folks who believe in God watching out for people, you’d have to say that Rawlins was damned lucky to survive the ordeal he and John Grady eventually go through in that Mexican prison. But if God was looking out for Rawlins, why’d He let him go to that prison in the first place?

But there were other things that I needed the book in my hands in order to pick up on. Like the way John Grady only really understood the world through his relationship with horses. Here’s a scene from early in the book when he goes into town to see his mother, recently estranged from his father, perform in a stage play.

He thanked her and went in and tendered his ticket to an usher who led him over to the red carpeted stairs and handed him the ticket back. He went up and found his seat and sat waiting with his hat in his lap. The theatre was half empty. When the lights dimmed some of the people in the balcony about him got up and moved forward to seats in front. Then the curtain rose and his mother came through a door onstage and began talking to a woman in a chair.

At the intermission he rose and put on his hat and went down to the lobby and stood in a gilded alcove and rolled a cigarette and stood smoking it with one boot hacked back against the wall behind him. He was not unaware of the glances that drifted his way from the theatergoers. He’d turned up one leg of his jeans into a small cuff and from time to time he leaned and tipped into this receptacle the soft white ash of his cigarette. He saw a few men in boots and hats and he nodded gravely to them, they to him. After a while the lights in the lobby dimmed again.

He sat leaning forward in the seat with his elbows on the empty seatback in front of him and his chin on his forearms and he watched the play with great intensity. He’d the notion that there would be something in the story itself to tell him about the way the world was or was becoming but there was not. There was nothing in it at all. When the lights came up there was applause and his mother came forward several times and all the cast assembled across the stage and held hands and bowed and then the curtain closed for good and the audience rose and made their way up the aisles. He sat for a long time in the empty theatre and then stood and put on his hat and went out into the cold.

This is not John Grady’s world. He is a stranger here, alone in a crowd of people, unable to see any truth of existence. And yet two pages later, John Grady is described as he rides a horse:

The boy who rode on slightly before him sat a horse not only as if he’d been born to it which he was but as if were he begot by malice or mischance into some queer land where horses never were he would have found them anyway. Would have known that there was something missing for the world to be right or he right in it and would have set forth to wander wherever it was needed for as long as it took until he came upon one and he would have known that that was what he sought and it would have been.

This is his truth, the only truth he will ever truly know and be able to rely upon. John Grady’s knowledge and way with horses is sensuous and other-worldly—as if their spirits rise from the same unknown place.

The horses were already moving. He took the first one that broke and rolled his loop and forefooted the colt and it hit the ground with a tremendous thump. The other horses flared and bunched and looked back wildly. Before the colt could struggle up John Grady had squatted on its neck and pulled its head up and to one side and was holding the horse by the muzzle with the long bony head pressed against his chest and the hot sweet breath of it flooding up from the dark wells of its nostrils over his face and neck like news from another world. They did not smell like horses. They smelled like what they were, wild animals. He held the horse’s face against his chest and he could feel along his inner thighs the blood pumping through the arteries and he could smell the fear and he cupped his hand over the horse’s eyes and stroked them and he did not stop talking to the horse at all, speaking in a low steady voice and telling it all that he intended to do and cupping the animal’s eyes and stroking the terror out.

And there are other places were this mystic connection between men and horses is highlighted. Here’s Alejandra’s father:

He spoke of his campaigns in the deserts of Mexico and he told them of horses killed under him and he said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold. His own father said that no man who has not gone to war horseback can ever truly understand the horse and he said that he supposed he wished that this were not so but that it was so.

Indeed, McCarthy seems to portray horses as the ultimate embodiment of will. And who’s will do they embody? Well, I think McCarthy wants to leave us uncertain.

While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations and of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned.

Who’s will? Horse? Rider? Both? Neither? There’s something almost Melville-ian about horses in this novel, the horse is to McCarthy what the whale was to Melville, the keeper of some inscrutable secret of the universe—except whereas Melville’s whale was indifferent to the desires of man to possess it, McCarthy’s horse is a tool through which man may gain that knowledge.

But the biggest thing I think I missed in the audiobook was how much this was a story of a boy becoming a man, and the changes he has to go through in order to make that transformation. There’s a nice little exchange between John Grady and one of the criminals in the Mexican prison that pretty well describes the difference.

Where did you learn to fight? he said.

John Grady took a deep pull on the cigarette and leaned back.

What do you want to know? he said.

Only what the world wants to know.

What does the world want to know.

The world wants to know if you have cojones. If you are brave.

And that’s the essence. The world does not often test the bravery of a young boy. But as he grows and begins to make his way in it, it will test him, and if the boy passes the test, he will no longer be a boy. Regardless of his age—and John Grady is sixteen—if he can stand up to world and hold his own, he is a man.

John Grady’s test is a difficult and multifaceted one, but even before he faces it, there are allusions to the struggle that’s to come. Here’s what the Mexican police captain tells him.

I will tell you a story, he said. Because I like you. I was young man like you. You see. And this time I tell you I was always with these older boys because I want to learn every thing. So on this night at the fiesta of San Pedro in the town of Linares in Nuevo Leon I was with these boys and they have some mescal and everything—you know what is mescal?—and there was this woman and all these boys is go out to this woman and they is have this woman. And I am the last one. And I go out to the place where is this woman and she is refuse me because she say I am too young or something like that.

What does a man do? You see. I can no go back because they will all see that I dont go with this woman. Because the truth is always plain. You see. A man cannot go out to do some thing and then he go back. Why he go back? Because he change his mind? A man does not change his mind.
Maybe they tell her to refuse to me. So they can laugh. They give her some money or something like that. But I dont let whores make trouble for me. When I come back there is no laughing. No one is laughing. You see. That has always been my way in the world. I am the one when I go someplace then there is no laughing. When I go there then they stop laughing.

I believe the allusion here is to death—that the Mexican captain killed the whore even at such a young age, with much the same kind of business-like obligation he displays when he later has Jimmy Blevins taken out and shot for the alleged crime of killing a man while trying to steal his own horse back—and John Grady’s test involves death, too. A desperate fight for survival in the Mexican prison with a young criminal who had been paid to kill him. John Grady instead kills his attacker, but is gravely wounded in the process and hovers for some time near death.

He lay there three days. He slept and woke and slept again. Someone turned off the light and he woke in the dark. He called out but no one answered. He thought of his father in Goshee. He knew that terrible things had been done to him there and he had always believed that he did not want to know about it but he did want to know. He lay in the dark thinking of all this things he did not know about his father and he realized that the father he knew was all the father he would ever know. He would not think about Alejandra because he didnt know what was coming or how bad it would be and he thought she was something he’d better save. So he thought about horses and they were always the right thing to think about. Later someone turned the light back on again and it did not go off again after that. He slept and when he woke he’d dreamt of the dead standing about in their bones and the dark sockets of this eyes that were indeed without speculation bottomed in the void wherein lay a terrible intelligence common to all but of which none would speak. When he woke he knew that men had died in that room.

In McCarthy’s talented way, there’s a lot packed into this one paragraph, including, for me, the key to the tension between him and his father that I sensed in the audiobook but which I could never understand the crux of. Turns out I shouldn’t blame myself for missing it, because McCarthy almost goes out of his way to make it cryptic and almost completely absent from the text. “Goshee,” according to a doctoral dissertation on McCarthy’s Border Trilogy I found on the Internet, was more than likely a prisoner of war camp, although no such place name was ever, in fact, documented to have been associated with such a place. If that academic interpretation is true, then my own belief is that John Grady’s father must have met and failed his own test of manhood in that camp—or at least in the unspoken horror of what John Grady imagined he must have faced, John Grady had always assumed that his father had failed—and that failure now hangs over John Grady as a kind of familial destiny that he must try doubling hard to overcome.

But I said John Grady’s test was a multifaceted one—one facet being his ability to stand up against the violence of the world and go on living in spite of it—and the other his relationship with Alejandra. Whereas the world challenges him to be brave, this second facet challenges him to tender, but in a way that respects the differences that divide adult men and adult women. There’s an interesting exchange between John Grady and Alejandra’s grandmother that shows the difference between men and women of the world, and the gulf that John Grady will have to traverse if he is to pass this test of adulthood.

She poured their cups again.

I lost my fingers in a shooting accident, she said. Shooting live pigeons. The right barrel burst. I was seventeen. Alejandra’s age. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. People are curious. It’s only natural. I’m going to guess that the scar on your cheek was put there by a horse.

Yes mam. It was my own fault.

She watched him, not unkindly. She smiled. Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real. The events that cause them can never be forgotten, can they?

No mam.

Alejandra will be in Mexico with her mother for two weeks. Then she will be here for the summer.

He swallowed.

Whatever my appearance may suggest, I am not a particularly oldfashioned woman. Here we live in a small world. A close world. Alejandra and I disagree strongly. Quite strongly in fact. She is much like me at that age and I seem at times to be struggling with my own past self. I was unhappy as a child for reasons that are no longer important. But the thing in which we are united, my niece and I…

She broke off. She set the cup and saucer to one side. The polished wood of the table held a round shape of breath where they’d stood that diminished from the edges in and vanished. She looked up.

I had no one to advise me, you see. Perhaps I would not have listened anyway. I grew up in a world of men. I thought this would have prepared me to live in a world of men but it did not. I was also rebellious and so I recognize it in others. Yet I think that I had no wish to break things. The names of the entities that have power to constrain us change with time. Convention and authority are replaced by infirmity. But my attitude toward them has not changed. Has not changed.

You see that I cannot help but be sympathetic to Alejandra. Even at her worst. But I wont have her unhappy. I wont have her spoken ill of. Or gossiped about. I know what that is. She thinks that she can toss her head and dismiss everything. In an ideal world the gossip of the idle would be of no consequence. But I have seen the consequences in the real world and they can be very grave indeed. They can be consequences of a gravity not excluding bloodshed. Not excluding death. I saw this in my own family. What Alejandra dismissed as a matter of mere appearance or outmoded custom…

She made a whisking motion with the imperfect hand that was both a dismissal and a summation. She composed her hands again and looked at him.

Even though you are younger than she it is not proper for you to be seen riding in the campo together without supervision. Since this was carried to my ears I considered whether to speak to Alejandra about it and I have decided not to.

She leaned back. He could hear the clock ticking in the hall. There was no sound from the kitchen. She sat watching him.

What do you want me to do? he said.

I want you to be considerate of a young girl’s reputation.

I never meant not to be.

She smiled. I believe you, she said. But you must understand. This is another country. Here a woman’s reputation is all she has.

Yes mam.

There is no forgiveness, you see.


There is no forgiveness. For women. A man may lose his honor and regain it again. But a woman cannot. She cannot.

They sat. She watched him. He tapped the crown of his seated hat with the tips of his four fingers and looked up.

I guess I’d have to say that that dont seem right.

Right? she said. Oh. Yes. Well.

Men can fail their tests, and still have future trials by which they can redeem themselves. But women—women have one chance and if they lose it they are forever lost. It’s not a matter of right and wrong, as Alejandra’s grandmother will go on to say, but of who is calling the shots. The world is set up a certain way, and that’s the way it is, right or wrong.

John Grady confronts this reality head-on after getting out of the Mexican prison, returning for an Alejandra who loves him but who will no longer have him. It is, in fact, a deal she has struck with her grandmother. Get John Grady out of that prison and she will never see or pine for him again. It is presented fatalistically to John Grady—not right, not wrong, just the way things are—and John Grady undergoes his final transformation into an adult when accepts it on those terms.

He saw very clearly how all his life led only to this moment and all after led nowhere at all. He felt something cold and soulless enter him like another being and he imagined that it smiled malignly and he had no reason to believe that it would ever leave.

The path of a child has a destination—adulthood. But the path of an adult has no destination—because to become an adult is to realize that life is just a slow slide towards death. There’s an interesting section when John Grady is traveling back to Alejandra and he encounters some children and he has to explain to them his story in terms they can understand.

By noon he was riding a farmland road where the acequias carried the water down along the foot-trodden selvedges of the fields and he stood the horse to water and walked it up and back in the shade of a cottonwood grove to cool it. He shared his lunch with children who came to sit beside him. Some of them had never eaten leavened bread and they looked to an older boy among them for guidance in the matter. They sat in a row along the edge of the path, five of them, and the sandwich halves of cured ham from the hacienda were passed to left and to right and they ate with great solemnity and when the sandwiches were gone he divided with his knife the freshbaked tarts of apple and guava.

Donde vive? said the oldest boy.

He mused on the question. They waited. I once lived at a great hacienda, he told them, but now I have no place to live.

The children’s faces studied him with great concern. Puede vivir con nosotros, they said, and he thanked them and he told them that he had a novia who was in another town and that he was riding to her to ask her to be his wife.

Es bonita, su novia? They asked, and he told them that she was very beautiful and that she had blue eyes which they could scarcely believe but he told them also that her father was a rich hacendado while he himself was very poor and they heard this in silence and were greatly cast down at his prospects. The older of the girls said that if his novia truly loved him she would marry him no matter what but the boy was not so encouraging and he said that even in families of the rich a girl could not go against the wishes of her father. The girl said that the grandmother must be consulted because she was very important in these matters and that he must take her presents and try to win her to his side for without her help little could be expected. She said that all the world knew this to be true.

John Grady nodded at the wisdom of this but he said that he had already given offense where the grandmother was concerned and could not depend upon her assistance and at this several of the children ceased to eat and stared at the earth before them.

Es un problema, said the boy.

De acuerdo.

One of the younger girls leaned forward. Que offense le dio a la abuelita? she said.

Es una historia larga, he said.

Hay tiempo, they said.

He smiled and looked at them and as there was indeed time he told them all that had happened. He told them how they had come from another country, two young horsemen riding their horses, and that they had met with a third who had no money nor food to eat nor scarcely clothes to cover himself and that he had come to ride with them and share with them in all they had. This horseman was very young and he rode a wonderful horse but among his fears was the fear that God would kill him with lightning and because of this fear he lost his horse in the desert. He then told them what had happened concerning the horse and how they had taken the horse from the village of Encantada and he told how the boy had gone back to the village of Encantada and there had killed a man and that the police had come to the hacienda and arrested him and his friend and that the grandmother had paid their fine and then forbidden the novia to see him anymore.

When he was done they sat in silence and finally the girl said that what he must do is bring the boy to the grandmother so that he would tell her that he was the one at fault and John Grady said that this was not possible because the boy was dead. When the children heard this they blessed themselves and kissed their fingers. The older boy said that the situation was a difficult one but that he must find an intercessor to speak on his behalf because if the grandmother could be made to see that he was not to blame then she would change her mind. The older girl said that he was forgetting about the problem that the family was rich and he was poor. The boy said that as he had a horse he could not be so very poor and they looked at John Grady for a decision on this question and he told them in spite of appearances he was indeed very poor and that the horse had been given to him by the grandmother herself. At this some of then drew in their breath and shook their heads. The girl said that he needed to find some wise man with whom he could discuss his difficulties or perhaps a curandera and the younger girl said that he should pray to God.

The children cannot solve John Grady’s problem, for it is not the kind of problem that children can solve. It is an adult problem—and adult problems cannot be solved. They can only be understood and accepted. John Grady cannot even tell them his story in words they will understand. The paragraph where he summarizes the events of the novel sound like a children’s story, but they are anything but.

In the end, John Grady proves himself not just to be a man, but a thinking man, a man of conscience. He has struggled, and still wrestles with some of the judgments that must be made, but the ones he does make are better ones for the reflection he gives them. In many ways, he is very much like the Judge who has to weigh his actions and determine if he is entitled to keep the horse Blevins brought with him to Mexico. After that trial, John Grady visits the Judge at his home and make another confession.

When I was in the penitentiary down there I killed a boy.

The judge sat back in his chair. Well, he said. I’m sorry to hear that.

It keeps botherin me.

You must have had some provocation.

I did. But it dont help. He tried to kill me with a knife. I just happened to get the best of him.

Why does it bother you?

I dont know. I dont know nothin about him. I never even knew his name. He could have been a pretty good old boy. I dont know. I dont know that he’s supposed to be dead.

He looked up. His eyes were wet in the firelight. The judge sat watching him.

You know he wasnt a pretty good old boy. Dont you?

Yessir. I guess.

You wouldnt want to be a judge, would you?

No sir. I sure wouldnt.

I didnt want to be a judge. I was a young lawyer practicing in San Antonio and I come back out here when my daddy was sick and I went to work for the county prosecutor. I sure didnt want to be a judge. I think I felt a lot like you do. I still do.

What made you change your mind?

I dont know as I did change it. I just saw a lot of injustice in the court system and I saw people my own age in positions of authority that I had grown up with and knew for a calcified fact didnt have one damn lick of sense. I think I just didnt have any choice. Just didnt have any choice. I sent a boy from this county to the electric chair in Huntsville in nineteen thirty-two. I think about that. I dont think he was a pretty good old boy. But I think about it. Would I do it again? Yes I would.

I almost done it again.

Done what, killed somebody?


The Mexican captain?

Yessir. Captain. Whatever he was. He was what they call a madrina. Not even a real peace officer.

But you didnt.

No sir. I didnt.

They sat. The fire had burned to coals. Outside the wind was blowing and he was going to have to go out in it pretty soon.

I hadnt made up my mind about it though. I told myself that I had. But I hadnt. I dont know what would of happened if they hadnt of come and got him. I expect he’s dead anyways.

He looked up from the fire at the judge.

I wasnt even mad at him. Or I didnt feel like I was. That boy he shot, I didnt hardly even know him. I felt bad about it. But he wasnt nothin to me.

Why do you think you wanted to kill him?

I dont know.

Well, said the judge. I guess that’s somethin between you and the good Lord. Wouldnt you say?

Yessir. I didnt mean that I expected a answer. Maybe there aint no answer. It just bothered me that you might think I was somethin special. I aint.

Well that aint a bad way to be bothered.

He picked up his hat and held it in both hands. He looked like he was about to get up but he didnt get up.

The reason I wanted to kill him was because I stood there and let him walk that boy out in the trees and shoot him and I never said nothin.

Would it have done any good?

No sir. But that dont make it right.

The judge leaned from his chair and took the poker standing on the hearth and jostled the coals and stood the poker back and folded his hands and looked at the boy.

What would you have done if I’d found against you today?

I dont know.

Well, that’s a fair answer, I guess.

It wasnt their horse. It would of bothered me.

Yes, said the judge. I expect it would.

I need to find out who the horse belongs to. It’s gotten to be like a millstone around my neck.

There’s nothin wrong with you son. I think you’ll get it sorted out.

Yessir. I guess I will. If I live.

In fact, my only critique of the book is something you’ve probably already noticed—the odd lack of punctuation and the overindulgence for run-on sentences. Sometimes it works powerfully, like in the tightly described scene I first quoted above when Alejandro and John Grady make love in his bunk. But too often it’s frankly distracting, my eyes running on over the words and losing all sense of their meaning because there is no punctuation to help me slow down and take notice.

That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies over the plain where their rich bay and their rich chestnut colors shone in the sun and the young colts ran with their dams and trampled down the flowers in a haze of pollen that hung in the sun like powdered gold and they ran he and the horses out along the high mesa where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and tails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised.

Yeah, I get it. It’s a dream and all the images run together like these words, but I can’t get any meaning out of this without a couple of periods.

But other than that, it’s a fabulous read.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


“Nothing is done to oneself that one does not accept.”
Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (Pilar)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Transients (1990)

Mainstream Fiction
3,808 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

+ + + + + + + + +

The snow flurries were just beginning as Kenny made his way across the trainyard. He was set. He was wearing the oldest and grungiest clothes he could find in the rag bag in the basement of his mother’s house: two pairs of holey socks and tattered tennis shoes, torn and paint-speckled trousers, three layers of sweat and tee-shirts under a rag of an overcoat, and a dirty baseball cap with a faded green Burlington-Northern patch. He hadn’t bathed in a week. He was sure to fit in. But most importantly, he had a bottle of 100-proof Tennessee whiskey in one of the deep pockets of his overcoat.

A quick glance around the trainyard and Kenny found what he was looking for, three men huddled in an open boxcar waiting in the darkness for the train to pull out and take them away. The engine at the front of the line was in an obliging mood; it groaned and started to move slowly on the tracks. Dirty snow and slush splashed up his legs as Kenny ran to catch up. Two of the men had retreated into the darkness of the boxcar, but one remained at the open door and watched the young man run.

When Kenny got close enough, the man at the door reached out a hand and pulled him up into the car. Kenny stood next to the man and saw the other two filling an empty oil drum with straw and wooden slats from some empty crates that were piled in the far corner of the boxcar.

“Howdy,” the man at the door said. “Where ya headed?”

The man was much older than Kenny, with a white beard, missing teeth, and a face like cracked leather.

“Away from here,” Kenny said.

“Well,” the man said, “that’s where I’m goin’ too, but I think this train’s goin’ to Saint Louie.” He gave Kenny a gap-toothed smile and shook his hand. “My name’s Alf.”

“I’m Kenny.”

Alf motioned him over to the oil drum and they joined the other two men. “Boys,” Alf said. “This here’s Kenny. Kenny, these shifty-lookin’ characters are Match and Dancin’ Joe.”

Kenny shook hands with both men. Match was not much older than himself, wearing an old fedora with the brim turned up above his forehead. He had big ears and a big nose, and was halfway between clean shaven and a beard. Dancing Joe was a man easily forty, but big and muscular all the same. His hands seemed the size of tennis rackets. Match smiled and said a warm hello to Kenny, but Dancing Joe remained silent and paused as if in indecision before shaking the stranger’s hand.

“Match,” Alf said, “show Kenny here how ya got yer name and light this sucker. If I get much colder, I think my balls’ll fall off.”

“Sure will,” Match said happily and dug a hand into a pocket of his coat. He brought out a pile of matchbooks. One by one he brought them close to his face, squinted, and read their cover aloud. “Let’s see, we’ve got...Nicky’s Tavern...Simpleton Cigars...Snyder Grinding Company...Jerry’s Family Restaurant...Oscar’s on State...”

“He collects matchbooks,” Alf said confidentially to Kenny. “Saves ‘em all year long but they only really come in handy in the winter time. He don’t smoke or nothin’.”

Out of the corner of his eye, while he watched Match shuffle through his little prizes, Kenny caught Dancing Joe staring at him. He tried to ignore the stare, and averted his eyes to the door of the boxcar. The train was beginning to pick up some speed as it left the city. All was dark outside, and only the snowy landscape could be seen. A few flakes of snow fell into the car as the train rattled through the night. Kenny turned back to Dancing Joe and the big man was still staring at him. Kenny did not like the big man’s eyes on him. Dancing Joe had the eyes of a madman.

“Sure likes to light fires, though,” Alf said.

Match went on with his list. “...Fuller Brush Company...Castle County Cigarettes...The Ramble Inn...Zablocki Funeral Home...The Lighthouse—”

“Just pick one and light the goddamn fire!” Alf shouted. He shook his head and turned to Kenny. “Boy just loves goin’ through his collection. Don’t care if we all just freeze to death.”

“The Lighthouse, then,” Match said, putting the rest of his books back in his pocket. He took off a match from The Lighthouse, lit it, and dropped it quickly into the drum, as if he was afraid of burning himself. The straw and paper seemed to catch the flame instantly and in no time there was enough fire for the four men to warm themselves.

“Say,” Kenny said as he reached inside his coat and brought out the bottle of whiskey. “You boys wouldn’t know what I should do with this, would you?”

Alf let out a snort. “Well, son, gimme here and I’ll see if I can figure somethin’ out.”

Kenny handed over the bottle. Alf unscrewed the top, breaking the seal, and took an unceremonial drink from it. He lowered the bottle and smacked his lips. “Ahhh... Been awhile since I’ve had a taste that fine. I don’t think my liver’ll know what to do with licker this smooth. Key-rist!” He passed the bottle to Dancing Joe.

Dancing Joe gave Kenny another long hard stare before taking a drink from the bottle. The looks were starting to gnaw at Kenny’s insides, so he nudged Alf and quietly asked the old man what was the matter with his friend.

“Hey, hey,” Alf said. “Don’t ya worry none ‘bout ol’ Dancin’ Joe here. He used to be a pro-fessional boxer, he did. Christ, ya might’ve even heard of him. Called himself Dancin’ Joe Dandee. Used to dance ‘round the ring like a goddamn ballerina.” Alf shuffled his feet and threw a shadow punch.

Kenny raised his eyebrows. “I have heard of him.”

“Sure, course ya have,” Alf said. “Fought the Champ ‘bout ten years back.” Alf leaned closer to Kenny. “I think the Champ tagged him one too many times in the head, if ya know what I mean. Spent a long time in the hospital, and when he come out, his fightin’ game went right down the crapper. I met him here on the trains couple years back. Don’t talk much, but he’s okay.”

Kenny smiled weakly. Dancing Joe gave him another haunted look, took a second swig of the booze and passed the bottle to Match.

The clackity-clack of the rails was the only sound for a while. Match slowly took his drink of the whiskey. He nodded his satisfaction when he was done and gave the bottle back to Kenny. Dancing Joe threw some more straw and wood on the fire.

“Say, uh, Kenny,” Alf said. “If ya don’t mind me askin’, what’s yer story?”

“My story?” Kenny asked.

“Yer story,” Alf said. “Why ya out ridin’ the rails?”

Kenny took a sip of the booze. “Well,” he said. “For a few years now, I’ve been trying to make it as a writer.”

“A writer?” Alf asked.

“Yeah. Except I can’t seem to write anything that anybody wants to read. But a while back, I get this idea. I used to live near those trainyards we just left and I’ve seen so many men like you hanging around—”

“Men like me?” Alf interrupted.

“Yeah, you know. Anyway, like you said, I always wondered what their stories were. What’d happened to them that made them ride the trains. So I started riding the trains myself and talking to people. I’ve been out here with you guys about six months now, and I’ve heard some pretty interesting things. I’m hoping to make a decent book out of the lives and experiences of men like you.”

“‘Bout us?” Alf said. “Ya wanna write ‘bout us? ‘Bout me and Match and Dancin’ Joe here? Ya think people are gonna wanna read ‘bout us?”

“Well sure,” Kenny said. “Why not?”

Alf took the bottle away from Kenny. “Match, can ya believe this boy?”

“Sure can’t, Alf. Sounds damn crazy to me.”

“Crazy is right!” Alf said. “Boy, the people who have money to waste on books don’t want to read ‘bout no people like us. They hate us. Nothin’ but no good bums they call us. They’re the ones who kick us out of the damn bus terminals and make up dumb excuses when we ask them for some change.” Alf took a drink from the whiskey bottle and gave it to Dancing Joe.

“Maybe so,” Kenny said, “but that’s only because they don’t like being around you. I’m sure a lot of them are interested in the lives you lead. You guys are a piece of Americana. Lone outcast fighting for survival against a hostile world. People love that stuff. It’s sort of romantic in a way.”

Dancing Joe took a long drink and gave the bottle to Match.

“Romantic!” Alf shouted. “Father God and Sonny Jesus, boy, ya think there’s somethin’ romantic ‘bout being a vagrant? Christ, Match, he called us romantic.”

Match swallowed and passed the whiskey back to Kenny. “Crazy sonofabitch all right, Alf.”

Kenny stood there holding the whiskey. “Well,” he said, “I guess romantic is too strong of a word, then. But it is interesting. Best idea I’ve had for a book yet, at least.”

“Well, it sounds none too appealin’ to me,” Alf said. “How ‘bout you, Match?”

“Nope. Sure don’t, Alf.”

Kenny took a drink and held the bottle out for Alf to see it. “Does that mean you’re not going to help me?”

Alf clutched the bottle to himself. “Well, well, now I wouldn’t say that right off. After all, ya did bring this here whiskey.” He took a drink and gave the bottle to Dancing Joe. “Seems to me the least we could do is spin ya a few yarns. Just cut it with that romantic garbage. How ‘bout it, Match?”

“I reckon so, Alf.”

Kenny looked at Dancing Joe, expecting Alf to ask for his opinion as well, but no one said anything to the boxer. He kept his eyes fixed on Kenny as he took another long drink of the whiskey. The liquid bubbled a few times on his lips and the level in the bottle went down more than two inches. When he was finished, he gave the bottle to Match and went about gathering more fuel and throwing it into the fire.

“Myself,” Alf said, drawing Kenny’s attention away from the actions of Dancing Joe, “I’ve been ridin’ the rails for nearly forty years now. And I’d say in that time I’ve seen more of this great country than most re-spectable people ever hope to. Oh, I don’t get to go any of them fancy places, of course. I mean, they don’t exactly let my kind in the penthouse suite at the Waldorf and I don’t get invited to no presidential boofeys, for Christ’s sake, but I guess I’ve seen ‘bout all the land has to offer someone like me. Born right here in the Ohio Valley, I was, but don’t ask me when ‘cause frankly, I’ve lost track of the date.” Alf stopped and suddenly eyed Kenny with a cocked eyebrow. “Say, boy, ain’t ya gonna write some of this down or somethin’?”

Kenny took the bottle from Match who was finishing his drink. “Don’t need to,” he said. “I’ve got a real good memory.”

Alf wrinkled his brow. “Well is there anythin’ special ya want to know, then?”

Kenny took a drink and gave the bottle to Alf. “Well, I guess mainly what I’m looking for is what went wrong with your life.”

Alf took a drink. “What went wrong?”

Kenny nodded. “Yeah, you know, what made you become a—made you, ah...start riding the trains.”

Alf took another drink.

“That’s two!” Match shouted. “You took two, Alf!”

“I knows it, I knows it,” Alf said, quickly handing the bottle to Dancing Joe. “Don’t get yer balls in an uproar! There’s enough left for ya to have two when it gets around to ya.”

“There’d better be,” Match said.

Silence fell uneasily over the group and Dancing Joe threw some more broken wood on the fire. The flames crackled and deepened the lines in Alf’s face as Kenny studied the old man. He was staring wide-eyed into the drum. Alf slowly shook his head back and forth and bit at his lower lip. Dancing Joe took another long drink of the liquor, and the gurgling sounds brought Alf’s face back up to the group of men in the boxcar.

“It was nineteen thirty-two,” Alf said in a voice he hadn’t used all night. “Three years after the Crash and the Depression was hitting everyone really hard. Through seniority and luck I’d kept my job at American Linen, but that year my number came up, and I was laid off just like everybody else.”

Quietly, almost delicately, as if afraid of waking an abusive father, Dancing Joe handed the bottle to Match.

“Me and Sylvia...” Alf looked at Kenny. “Sylvia was my wife.” The old man paused and coughed into his fist before he went on. “We were living in this shack on Freemont Avenue with our little one, Susannah, who’d been very sick for about a month before the day I got fired. The factory was within walking distance of our home, and I remember wandering the streets that day trying to think of how I was going to take care of the little one without a job.”

Match took two quick sips of the whiskey and handed the bottle hurriedly to Kenny. He took it and held it in his left hand.

“Mrs. Rosenburg lived next door to us with her husband and two kids. She was a short round woman with black hair and red cheeks. Sometimes, she’d make pies for me and Sylvia, because Sylvia, no matter how much I loved her, was a terrible cook. She treated me like a god. Burnt offerings at every meal.”

The joke barely made it out of Alf’s mouth. It had to fight its way through the old man’s cracked lips, but it found that nobody in the boxcar wanted it, so it dropped quickly into the fire.

“The Rosenburgs,” Alf continued, “suffered in the Depression with the rest of us, but throughout it all, they always had a little money to spare. Arthur Rosenburg worked at one of the movie theaters in town.”

Kenny took a drink of whiskey and passed the bottle to Alf. There wasn’t much of it left.

“Mrs. Rosenburg was always one of the happiest little women you could ever imagine. I never thought she’d ever be sad about anything her entire life. She was always singing while she did the wash or things like that. As I walked home that day, I was hoping I’d get to hear one of her happy songs before I had to go in and tell Sylvia the news. I was really counting on hearing one of her songs. I think it could’ve really helped me. When I got home, Mrs. Rosenburg was sitting on my front stoop, crying.”

Alf took a struggled drink of whiskey and pushed the bottle into Dancing Joe’s large hands.

“Mrs. Rosenburg—Anna—told me that my little Susannah had died that afternoon, and that Sylvia had to be taken away in hysterics. The doctors had a fancy word for what had happened to her. They told me to think of it as some kind of breakdown. I guess it doesn’t matter what it was. Less than a year later, my baby was still dead, Sylvia was in a state institution, and I was riding the trains.”

Alf lowered his head, the tears on his leather face glowing in the firelight.

Match put his hands in his pockets and kicked at the floor.

Dancing Joe finished the rest of the whiskey.

Kenny nodded and turned to Match. “And what about you?”

The crash was so loud that at first Kenny thought the train had derailed or had hit an oncoming freight. Three heads popped up to see Dancing Joe bent over in his follow-through. The glass of the whiskey bottle had shattered against the wall of the boxcar and the noise echoed over and over again in the suddenly cramped space. The shards of glass exploded throughout the car like the shrapnel of a grenade.

“You son of a bitch!” Dancing Joe roared as he straightened up to his six and a half feet. “Put that in your goddamn book, will you?! Just one more fucking fairy tale of the rails, eh?! Well, you want something to write about, goddammit? I’ll give you something to write about, you fuck!”

Dancing Joe pushed his way past Alf and bore down on Kenny. Kenny backed up to the end of the boxcar and pressed himself against the wall.

“Don’t do it, Joe,” Alf said as he tried to pull the boxer back. “The boy didn’t mean nothin’ by it. It ain’t his fault the things that happened to me.”

Dancing Joe shrugged him off. “Don’t worry about it, Alf. I’m just going to give the boy here something to write about in his goddamn book. Something about us lousy hoboing bums. Yes sir, I am.”

“Ya’ve had too much,” Alf pleaded. “It’s just the booze talkin’, Joe.”

Dancing Joe walked right up to the cowering form of Kenny and poked him in the chest with a stiff finger while he shouted at him. “Yes sir, Mister Writer, I’m going to give you just what you’ve been asking us for.”

“W…wa…waitaminute,” Kenny stammered. “I didn’t mean any offense. Please. I just—”

“You just wanted to know how come we were lousy hoboing bums. No harm in that, right? Well listen to me, you goddamn fake, I ain’t riding these trains because it’s romantic or interesting for dumbfuck pencilnecks like you. I’m riding these trains simply because I couldn’t hit an ugly nigger hard enough to knock him on his black ass.”

Dancing Joe punched Kenny in the gut and he doubled over, the air whooshing out of his lungs. He dropped to his knees.

“Now, what do you think?” Dancing Joe asked. “Do you think that was hard enough to drop some ugly nigger? Sure put a paisley-ass faggot like you on the floor.”

Kenny wheezed for breath as he looked up and saw Alf and Match standing very still by the burning oil drum. The corners of his vision were black. Dancing Joe brought his knee up hard into Kenny’s chin and Kenny bit his own tongue deeply. Blood filled his mouth and his head rocked back with the blow. Dancing Joe grabbed him by the shirtfront and hauled him up against the wall of the boxcar. With one hand, the boxer reached around and took Kenny’s wallet out of his back pocket. It was made of leather and almost new.

“What are ya gonna do, Joe?” Alf asked.

“I knew it!” Dancing Joe said, ignoring Alf. He held the wallet up in front of Kenny’s face. “Six months, my ass. How much money you got in here, you goddamn fake? Enough so that when we get to Saint Louis, you’ll head for the warmest hotel, I’ll bet. Enough money to buy that goddamn whiskey to loosen the lips of us lousy hoboing bums.”

Kenny coughed up some blood onto Dancing Joe’s shirt.

Dancing Joe punched Kenny in the face and dropped him to the floor, unconscious. Dancing Joe put Kenny’s wallet in his own coat pocket.

Alf took a full step forward. “What are ya gonna do, Joe? Don’t do nothin’ stupid, now.”

“Back off, Alf,” Dancing Joe said. “I’m going to throw this book-writing faggot off this damn train, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Alf ran over to the fallen Kenny. “We’ve got to be goin’ sixty for Christ’s sake! You’ll kill the boy!”

Dancing Joe looked at Alf and then slowly over to Match.

“Alf’s right, Joe,” Match said. “You’ll kill him.”

Dancing Joe smiled. “You’re goddamn right I will.”

“Listen, Joe,” Alf said. “Don’t blame the boy for the things that happened to us. It wasn’t his fault. I’m here because my country dried up and my family went with it. You’re here because ya found yerself unable to do the only thing ya were ever any good at. And Match…well, Christ, ya know why Match is here.”

Dancing Joe kept his eyes on Kenny’s unconscious form.

“The point is,” Alf went on, “that we got dealt a bum hand. The boy had nothin’ to do with it. He might’ve pissed ya off with all his questions and fakery, but that still gives ya no right to go ahead and kill him. Ya may not deserve to be ridin’ these trains, but the boy sure don’t deserve to die.”

Kenny stirred and let out a moan.

Dancing Joe looked up at Alf. “But I am riding these trains, ain’t I, Alf? Like you say, I don’t deserve to be, but I am. I guess we don’t always get what we deserve, do we?”

Dancing Joe knelt down and picked up Kenny like he was cradling a baby. Kenny was making noises but he was still out cold. Alf stood between the boxer and the open door.

“Get out of my way, Alf,” Dancing Joe said. “Or, so help me, I’ll push you out with him.”

Alf looked into the big man’s eyes for a long time before he stepped aside.

Dancing Joe lifted the inert form of Kenny to chest level and, with one mighty heave, pushed the body out of the boxcar and into the night air. Kenny disappeared into the blackness and swirling snowflakes. There was no sound of his body hitting the ground. The boxcar sped on through the night, pulled along by the engine at the head of the line.

Alf slowly made his way back to the oil drum. Match stood there, hands still in his pockets.

“What’re we gonna do, Alf?” Match asked, looking over at Dancing Joe still standing at the boxcar door.

Alf turned to look at Dancing Joe and then back to Match. “Fire’s goin’ out,” he said.

“Ain’t we gonna do nothin’?” Match whispered across the dying flames.

Alf drew his coat around his body. “Match,” he said. “The fire’s going out.”

Match looked down into the drum. “Yeah,” he said. “I suppose it is.” He took his collection of matchbooks from out of his pocket. He cleared his throat. “Nicky’s Tavern…Simpleton Cigars…Snyder Grinding Company…”

Dancing Joe listened to the list and looked silently out across the snowy countryside.

+ + + THE END + + +