Monday, August 27, 2007

Blogging On The Road: Chapter 1

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead.

Without reading any more than the first two sentences, all I can think of is this:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

And I have this vision of the nameless narrator (and he stays nameless for a long time) as a soul-dead drifter divorced from female companionship ditching Beatrice for a Virgil who runs every red light on the road to hell and back. This Virgil is the perfect road companion: Dean, a man who was born on the road itself. A man who is also dumped by his woman and ends up at the narrator’s house in Paterson, New Jersey--which sets my Western Lit alarm off and I envision Dean and the narrator visiting Paterson doctor William Carlos Williams to con a prescription for Benzedrine, and the good doctor writing the following poem:

so much depends
a red ford

splashed with brown

beside the white
route 66 sign.

What do we know about Dean at this stage of the game, besides the fact that the narrator is enthralled by him? Well, in a wonderful paragraph-long sentence, we discover that Dean is the most fantastic parking lot attendant in the world. We also discover a typically oblique reason for the narrator's fascination with Dean in a justly famous passage which comes up so quickly in the book it feels like a summation instead of a beginning:

They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"

Like the symphonies of Beethoven, it's impossible to hear this for the first time. Seeing these words is an act of recognition, not perception.

On the theory that everything in this novel is about Dean--every relationship and every image and every word the narrator says, whether he knows it or not--we've just been given the man in poetical miniature, which is almost immediately followed by a much more down-to-earth snapshot of a man who is totally obsessed with getting laid and getting fed, an animal interested in nothing more than where his next girl and his next meal are coming from. A man who's not, in fact, very likeable. And yet the narrator sees in Dean a kind of world-oyster, and by following him, "[s]omewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me." What pearl? The pearl of wisdom? The pearl of great price? Or (knowing Dean) a girl named Pearl who'll make your blue centerlight pop till you go "Awww!"

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