A Lit trend I’ve noticed, since writing this story in 2009, is that using an unreliable narrator, in a short story, has become as risky as using irony on Facebook. People are so used to identifying with the protag; so used to knowing exactly on “which side” the protag, or even the author, is; so sure, before reading the first complete paragraph of the story, what the “moral” is and even that there is one. I had an angry commenter dip in here a few months ago, brandishing her/his Virtue Signaling water pistol (I hope that was apple juice the pistol was filled with), hissing, among other things, about Nabokov’s “moral crimes”. Well I suppose that fits with our current Neo-McCarthyism. But it doesn’t bode well for the future of nuanced reading, does it? All to say… whatever. Forget I mentioned it… except to say that this story’s Free Indirect Discourse is… tricky.
THE REAL JIMMY DAVIS
We’ve all heard of the Angel of Death, but what about the Angel of Poverty, the Angel of Rape, the Angel of Racism? They aren’t the subjects of florid poems or valuable French oil paintings. We rarely discuss them. Yet there they are.
Note for screenplay: cars as suits of armor. Animated? He leans on the horn. If the horn were a death button he’d press it even harder and far more often. He is Danny Vespers (this with a Rod Serling voice) driving home, from a pilgrimage to the hallowed gadget shop in the most masculine corner of his segregated mall, with a top-of-the-line camcorder. Danny is slightly embarrassed to bring this camcorder home to a less-than-immaculate household. High-end products give us a standard to live up to. Both in the viewfinder and in comparison, the sleek sexy camcorder made Miriam’s vagina look like an heirloom.
Can we work that into the voice-over?
An old idealist is impossible. At the very least, the body’s ongoing corruption as life runs out makes mock of ideals or ideas, noble or otherwise, because, check it out, the old man or woman’s bad odors and pathetic mechanical frailties are the ultimate betrayal of idealism; ultimate because irrefutably, not just rhetorically, true. Ideals are a nice decoration for physically perfect bodies: yes. And yet, the idealism of the young is idiotic. Imagine a lion cub arguing the ethical merits of vegetarianism to its parents.
He contemplated the fractured, contingent totality of their bored perception of him standing hip-handed in front of the class. His knees hurt. The old fuck the young as though they’re owed something. They are, aren’t they?
Vespers’s eye was on that one in the second row, that perfect little cinnamon titcake. God. Hindu? Imagine six arms in bed, a hand for each of his dicks. He had polished a suavely radical disquisition and it never failed to drop at least three students per school year in the sofabed under the curtained window in his office. Soft pink fruits with names like Tuesday or Ashley. You will be surprised to learn that instructors are still fucking students in certain private academies of higher knowledge for in the amoral old money timelessness of épater le bourgeois the parents secretly like it and provide a clear signal (like lights around a heli-pad) by naming a daughter Tallulah.
Anyone caught referring to it as “film class” would get a failing grade. Would Vespers be teaching if he hadn’t been failed by cinema?
Vespers was in a bit of trouble. Not for fucking Tallulah. This is how it happened. That good looking boy who actually was fucking Tallulah; Brody, Brody Camp; at some point in a discussion about Cassavetes, of all people… he says: We are here to help each other through this thing called Life…
Vespers, gunning for Brody anyway (infuriating name, pedigree, girlfriend, jawline, stature, pecs, youth and Italian shoes) goes, with a smile, tossing the chalk and snatching it down, “Thank you Mister Camp for invoking that quintessentially sappy all-American tautology we are here to help each other which is a little like claiming we exercise to build the strength to lift weights and is only trumped for sheer vacuous, well-meaning stupidity by the witlessly evil doctrine of Karma, an infinite, and therefore pointless, regress of balance and counter-balance that proposes we accept Adolph Hitler… think about it… as nothing more heinous than an agent of divine justice. Those Jews had it coming. More thinking and less reflex parroting of unexamined masscult bullshit in this class, thanks, Mr. Camp. We are here to think.”
Two days later Vespers is notified with ominous decorum of the early stages of a hate speech lawsuit being filed by the parents of none other than the Hindu titcake.
Miriam peered between slats in the blinds in the kitchen window towards the gazebo. Paolo was making uncanny sounds like the loyal hound in a slasher flick.
Vespers, preoccupied with this lawsuit bullshit, had left the side door of the garage ajar.
Leave a door open and something always comes in.
He liked the smell of his own farts. Looked forward to them. His pedagogical method encouraged what he called a living scepticism. Top positions in any field will be colonized by those with the desire but not the talent. It’s the lack of talent that breeds the desire. He said you won’t get a good grade in this class by agreeing with me. Approximately once a semester some student fell into the carefully-baited trap of asking if you know so much about movies how come you never made one?
He gave his speech about modern movies. The thesis of the cinema of tears and shit; blood being the stand-in for shit. Hollywood is not quite ready to show shit. We are not quite ready for the Hollywood shitbath.
He said: Democracy, an experiment in making freedom intolerable.
He scanned the room for reactions. His eyes sort of hopped over the Hindu girl. It occurred to him that this might turn out to be the first semester in his history as a teacher that he’d have to do without fucking a student. Or worse. Someone knuckle-rapped the bulletproof glass in the classroom door and Vespers jumped a lightyear in his skin.
Oh: just Good old Paul.
Over a bagel sandwich in the hot little student place about a block off campus good old Paul said thanks for taking the time.
-Come on. We’re friends.
-Longer than we’ve been married. Paul fingered the spot on his jacket’s lapel that corresponded to the spot on Vespers’s jacket lapel where he wore the black button that said The Doctor Is In and chuckled I can’t believe you’ve gotten away with wearing that all these years.
-Remember the time we brazenly rolled that wheelbarrow into the Riverpark nursery and stacked it with twenty-pound sacks of mulch and walked right out without paying and nobody said a word?
Paul set his bagel back down on its plate to laugh and nod loosely in his hands.
-It’s like that.
-Well, I always said you’d make a great cult leader.
-It’s only a matter of scale.
-Any prospects in the current crop?
-Too early to say.
-Times are hard.
-Among other things.
Paul said, God, remember how they used to say there are over a hundred words for snow in the Eskimo language?
-Yeah, it’s kind of obvious from my tone, isn’t it? I need to ask kind of a momentous favour of you.
-I need you to talk to Bevvie.
-You want a divorce?
-I want to come out of the closet and I don’t know how to frame it for her, verbally, in a way that won’t sound like an apology or I don’t know. Like bragging or something. Or defiance. Or an admission of sin. Just, you know. I want it to be about relating a fact, or a set of facts, or circumstances, without the emotional or psycho-political distortion of all the baggage you build up in a long marriage which will inevitably have her searching my face for clues or deeper meanings when what I really need her to do is simply listen to and grasp and accept the facts. I don’t want this info dramatized I want it reported. I mean, if I deliver the message, I’m a kind of unreliable narrator figure, for purely circumstantial reasons, ie, her husband, regarding whom, as you know, the proper approach is, you know, forensic, mediated by a sense of the conventions surrounding the unreliable narrator’s performance, and by contrasting what the narrator presents with what we know of the greater circumstance we plug into the author’s intention. Right? But, see, there is no intention. It just is. Like a rock is or, I don’t know, this bagel. It’s just a fact which acceptance or non-acceptance is not the issue. Like oxygen.
-Paulie. Wait. What. You?
Vespers went for a drive through Inver Hills.
The mansions were pre-War, dignified, what you’d call imposing. Poor folks from down the hill when he was young would take spiraling walks up here to physically daydream convenient reincarnations into very old money. They daydreamed on foot along a curve overlooking the valley of low expectations they came up from, until a city ordinance in the early 1980s made it illegal to walk or park or dream on Inver Hills streets. There weren’t any sidewalks. It was Vespers’s guess that the rich used to enjoy the spectacle of having the poor up there before the definition of poor refined itself too sharply. Poor was no longer what you were but what you did. The armed response signs were being posted further and further down the driveways. Vespers remembered driving Miri up in the green Camaro, slowly, dreamily, in the creamy continuum of courtship, one arm around her waist. He wanted tears to well-up recalling the Kodachrome sweetness of the Kingston Trio. He wanted tears to well and over-brim imagining his old eight-track in its loyal woodgrain shell at the bottom of several generations of trash somewhere, poignantly built to survive its usefulness by a thousand years.
Vespers still fucked Miri to the sincere satisfaction of both parties at least once a week, occasionally pretending to be a running character named Jimmy Davis, a black burglar with an unplaceable accent. Acquiring a licorice-colored supercock in the process. A licorice nightstick as he put it to himself while putting it to Miri, who’d pretend to be chafed by it.
“Jimmy Davis” would rifle through Miriam Vespers’s underwear drawers in search of “jewelry”, uncovering a trail of carefully-placed sex aids, already switched on, plus video tapes ready to pop in the VCR and blank tapes for the camcorder. “Rape” the gagged housewife to a bebop soundtrack. Rape as kitsch and marital aid. Vespers couldn’t imagine trying to get away with using Jimmy Davis on one of his coeds, although the fact that he could derive pleasure from pretending to be a black burglar raping a white housewife without having the slightest desire to be black or rape housewives was the most personal argument he could come up with in support of his false catharsises of cinema theory. The magic of cinema being that the audience is acting, too, though not out of identification. In self-defense. Powerful cinema is no less an intruder than is Jimmy Davis. The passive gaze is the ultimate mask.
But this is what Vespers had forgotten: he’d forgotten fucking a hardship student named Ruby Davis in 1977.
Miriam didn’t like the way her voice sounded as she heard herself calling who’s out there?
Paulie pointed suddenly and precisely saying Here. Turn right here, and they pulled into a tree-lined driveway.
Vespers said Where’s the front door?
-Real mansions don’t have front doors. That’s the point, isn’t it?
Vespers tried to pre-picture the polo-shirted catamite Paulie was so eager to introduce him to as what. Justification for obliterating the little spark of joie de vivre still lingering in the body of Vespers’s (and Vespers’s wife’s) dearest friend, the poor wife Bevvie, like futile volts in a leather lightbulb? They parked in a gravel lot, in front of a kerosene shed of heavy landscaping equipment, in a row of surprisingly downscale automobiles. Vespers voiced this observation with ungaurded smugness as he unbuckled his safety belt and Paulie said gardeners. Uncloseted Paulie was suddenly scoring snob points left and right and Vespers made a mental note to crucify his friend on some intellectual matter later. All the better if it related to fiction since Paulie was teaching the subject.
Danny Vespers was plotting this fey revenge on his undeservedly loyal friend at the very moment the brother of an alumna was tying his wife to a chair in the kitchen with an extension cord he’d gotten from the garage.