Tuesday, May 8, 2012

PEN/O. Henry 2012: Dagoberto Gilb and Wendell Berry: Conscious and Unconscious Intention

Dagoberto Gilb, “Uncle Rock”

In his comments on his story “Uncle Rock,” Dagoberto Gilb says that his fiction always comes from something observed or experienced that then “gets loaded onto and chipped away at and artistically distorted” by his “various obsessions.” He says that “Uncle Rock” is based on an experience when he went to a baseball game at Dodger Stadium with his mother and a date and got autographs from a busload of NY Yankees, as well as a note soliciting his mother something like the one Erick gets in the story.  He says he made Erick verging on mute, for “Mexican Americans are both not heard and trained to feel.”  With that he said, “the story’s on.” 
Although I enjoy reading the author comments in the PEN/O. Henry collection, I am not sure an author is always the best person to explain the intention or the meaning of his or her story. An author may indeed recall the origin of the story, but when he or she writes the story, other forces take over. The conventions of storytelling, for example, force the story into well-travelled paths, in which certain actions take on symbolic or universal significance whether the author intends this or not. When you ask an author the origin of the story or what really happened that instigated the story, the author may be able to tell you, but this may have little to do with the story itself.  When you ask an author what a story means, he or she may be able to tell you that he or she had certain intentions, but these also may have little to do with the story.
            If Gilb says that he makes the boy’s silence a metaphor for the plight of the Mexican American who is not allowed to have a voice, who am I to disagree with him?  Well, as a reader, I think I have a right to let the story speak for itself.  It may be that a reader is a better interpreter of a story than the author, for authorial skills and critical skills are quite different—as any MFA student will be happy to tell you.
Gilb emphasizes several times in “Uncle Rock” that the reason Erick does not often speak has nothing to do with the fact his English is not good, but nothing in the story suggests that the boy’s silence is due to a cultural muteness imposed on Mexican Americans.  The details of the story suggest that the boy, who is eleven, does not speak when the men are around, not because his race silences him, but because the mother’s secret power over the men silences him.  He probably knows what the men want from his mother, but because she is his mother, he cannot articulate it—cannot allow himself to imagine it. If the boy’s reluctance to speak were a metaphor for cultural silencing, as Gilb suggests, the silence would only occur when the boy is around white society. The boy knows he cannot talk around the men; he just does not know why.
  The boy believes in magic, hoping that God’s magic will bring good to him and his mother without the help of wealthy men. When he and his mother and Uncle Roque go to the ball game, the green of the field is a “magic light.”  When he catches the ball, it is like magic, with no bobble, and he feels every set of eyes and every voice in the stadium. It is like magic when someone in the bus tells him that he will get everyone to sign the ball.  But Erick’s magic is undercut by the mysterious magic of his mother when he reads the note, in which a ballplayer asks his mother to come to the hotel for a drink.
The boy’s decision to keep the ball and to throw away the note is his own heroic act of rescuing his mother and protecting his “uncle Rock,” whom he has transformed into a member of the family, whom he knows respects his mother, and with whom he knows his mother does not keep company only for what money can bring them. 
Gilb may indeed believe that he made the boy silent because the white culture has made the Mexican American silent, but nothing in the story itself suggests this, while everything in the story suggests that the boy’s silence is because of the taboo nature of what the boy feels about his mother’s secret sexuality and the lust of the men who pursue her.

Wendell Berry, “Nothing Living Lives Alone.”
            There are stories, however, in which we can accept the stated intentions of the author, that is, when the story itself is so explicit about the ideas it embodies that it seems more like an essay than a story. Wendell Berry wisely admits that “Nothing Living Lives Alone” imposes “some strain on the term story,” for it is part of a longer work, he says, in which he tries to “deal directly and explicitly” with what he sees as the “paramount change” in his time and place from the “creaturely” to the “mechanical.” The story announces what it intends to illustrate in the first sentence: “Andy Catlett was a child of two worlds”—which Berry describes as the “town-world” and the “home place.”
            Although there is some narrative in this prose piece, it is primarily an essay in which Berry is very explicit about the values of the creaturely life of the farm and an idyllic past.  I like the piece, but being an old Kentucky boy myself, I also recall and treasure the values that Berry waxes eloquently about here.  I also like the piece because Berry’s prose is, like the farm work he values, carefully crafted, artistically controlled, and thus beautiful in its purity. 
There is, of course, a bucolic romanticism about this world in which farmers are praised as artists of perfection--doing what they do precisely with pride and skill.  The story affirms the familiar theme of Kentucky writers that the soil has been ruined by modern technology and the need for fuel—“the loss of topsoil, the toxicity of air and water, the destruction by mining of whole mountains, the destruction of land and water ecosystems.”
            If you read this piece as a romanticized recollection and a paean to a idealized world, then you can enjoy it for the prose and the peace it evokes, even though you may know that behind the beautiful perfection of the tobacco fields lies the horrible truth of the deaths that tobacco has cause and that behind the freedom the boy feels lies the drudgery of farm life.  But you cannot question the “meaning” of this piece, for Berry is very explicit about what he means here, as well he should in an essay. The success of an essay depends on how well the author achieves his or her intention; the success of a story depends more on narrative exceeding mere intention or didactic purpose.
            The story does end with a narrative coda, beginning “One warm spring Saturday afternoon” when the boy goes fishing and sees a young grey squirrel.  “The thought of catching and having something so beautiful, so small, so cunningly made, possessed him entirely. He wanted it as much as he had ever wanted anything in his life.”  What follows is a little chase for the creaturely in which the squirrel evades Andy’s grasp just as he reaches it.  The image of Andy in the trees reaching out for a squirrel that leaps away from him limb to limb is a relatively simply metaphor:  “Andy and the squirrel must have been at about the same stage of their respective lives: undoubting, ignorant, fearless, curious, happy in the secret attitudes of the treetops and the little branches, neither at all intimated by the blank blue sky above the highest branches, the outer boundary of both their lives.” The story ends with Andy’s return home to find that his grandmother has done the work he was supposed to do; his evasion of his responsibilities to try to capture ineffable beauty results in a sense of joy and guilt at once.
            As is typical of this kind of story of the young man at home in the natural world, Andy will not forget this afternoon for the rest of his life:  “What would stay with him would not be his frustration, his failure to catch the squirrel, but the beauty of it and his aerial life while he tried to catch it among the small supple branches that sprang with his weight as if almost but not quite he might have leapt from one to another like the squirrel, almost but not quite flying.”   It is only later that he wonders how, if he had caught the squirrel, he could have got down out of the tree with only one hand and knows he would have had to turn the creature loose.  As Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, and all the Romantics, well knew, you might be able momentarily to catch the creaturely, but you can never take it back to reality with you.

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