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While a casual reading of Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret might persuade the reader that the secret was that Gould never actually wrote his epic history of conversations he overheard, I think Mitchell tells us straight away what his secret was in the first few pages of his book. Joe Gould tells Mitchell, “There is nothing accidental about me” (5). This neatly captures his secret: even when he was suffering from his choices, dressing “under a red exit light” (9), not writing that history, he was where he wanted to be, not surrounded by a “shirt-sleeved multitude” (13).
Mitchell initially describes Gould as “an ancient, enigmatic, spectral figure, a banished man” (53), but he gives him flesh and spirit a few pages later, with an interesting effect:
“…his face was alert and on guard and yet so tired and so detached and so remotely reflective that it was almost impassive. Looking straight at me, he looked straight through me. I have seen the same deceptively blank expression on the faces of old freaks sitting on platforms in freak shows and on the faces of old apes in zoos on Sunday afternoons (57).
It’s as though Mitchell is fiercely warning the reader that Joe Gould is not a sideshow. I was intrigued by this—not that Mitchell was showing his compassion but that he warned people as surely as if he’d told us to back the hell off. The mechanics? I don’t know what to call it, but I know I want to write like that. In another passage, Mitchell writes, “…or I would see him sitting among the young mothers and the old alcoholics in the sooty, pigeon, crumb-besprinkled, newspaper-bestrewn, privet-choked, coffin-shaped little park at Sheridan Square” (53). Besides being a delightfully visual sentence, this paints a vivid picture of the author himself, I think. I catch an underlying impatient despairing anger in the way he rattles off how dreadful the park is—then he tops it off with “coffin-shaped,” as though its inhabitants were already dead. (Much later, Mrs. Sarah Ostrowsky Berman refers to “the city’s living dead” (158).)
One thing in particular captivated me in this book: the similarity between the author and his subject. I probably wouldn’t have noticed it except for one small statement of Gould’s: “I was under-sized; I was a runt, a shrimp, a peanut, a half-pint, a tadpole” (62). What struck me was that it sounded like something Mitchell would write. Indeed, he rattles off descriptions in exactly the same manner throughout the book. For example, in addition to the previously cited passages, he describes a barroom: “…it was long and narrow and murky, a blind tunnel of a place, a burrow, a bat’s cave, a bear’s den” (97); in describing magazines Gould brought out: “They were dog-eared and grease-spotted and coffee-stained” (76). I considered the possibility that all the dialogue was simply Mitchell’s style, but he took notes, and, I believe, recorded some conversations. Journalistic integrity dictates that he transcribe exactly what Gould said.
So I wonder: Did Mitchell see himself in Joe Gould? Gould’s fascination with every day conversations certainly mirrors Mitchell’s job as a journalist, but I think another statement of Gould’s captures the meat of it: Referring to his monstrously long history, he says, “Everything else I’ve ever done may disappear, but I’ll still be immortal” (77). I think, at the heart of every writer, is the desire to have one’s words live beyond one’s life. I wonder if Joe Gould’s secret was Mitchell’s as well.
That Frank Conroy’s memoir is titled Stop-Time is intriguing, in that within his story there is a sense of no-time. While we know from the author blurb that he was born in 1936, and thus understand that he grew up in the 1940s, and while he vividly paints his physical surroundings, Conroy doesn’t include many cultural references that would seat the reader in a specific time-frame. It doesn’t matter for the story, but it makes it difficult to orient oneself, which may be the point. Perhaps Conroy, via his memoir, is “sending [his voice] ahead to animate the bleakness, supremely conscious of himself as [a] pinpoint of life in a world of dead things.” In his story he “ramble[s] over…miles of wasteland, trying to find the center of it, the place to know it, [sensing] the place around [him] but they [are] too thinly spread, too finely drawn over all the miles of woods for us to grasp them” (29). He is writing of his boyhood explorations with his best friend, and “us” in that final sentence refers to them, but it fits his readers as well.
Briefly, at odd moments, Conroy abruptly switches to the present tense in his narrative, which serves to bring the reader directly into the moment. It’s an effective device, but one for which I could discern no pattern. A few times he employs it when he is writing about the here and now, and other times it seems he is emphasizing the importance of a memory, but he doesn’t use the technique consistently. Each time he uses it, it does stop time; perhaps it is because he is abruptly in the moment himself, as when he first shows his wife sleeping beside him and reveals that he still can’t figure out if he is alive or dead.
Conroy doesn’t expound on his inner turmoil as a child, but I believe he reveals anger at two points. He tells of sneaking into his parents’ room through a transom, after which he lands on his head. He writes, “The pain was barely noticeable. (No more than, fifteen years later, a woman’s teeth in my arm)” (157). He leaps from gleeful sneak-thievery to sexual innuendo, and it makes no sense within the context of the scene. Even if one were to stretch the association and equate his delight in conquering the locked door to later sexual exploration, he makes no further reference to anything remotely sexual in the next paragraph. So I wonder if his statement, “the pain was barely noticeable,” is a bigger one, an angry yet wistful brushing-aside of the immense emotional pain he endured as a child. I realize this is a stretch, too, but still, I wonder, particularly since this memoir is praised as being almost free of self-pity. He jars the reader one other time when he is gazing on the face of his newborn sister. He writes, “I spent a lot of time looking at her…as if by being there long enough…I would come to understand the mystery (I was a child, remember) of life” (154). We know he’s a child—we’re 150 pages into his story, and nowhere else has he felt the need to remind us that he was just a kid. Why here? I wonder, again, if this is a bit of anger seeping out.
One notable instance in which Conroy shows an emotional reaction occurs, interestingly, in the chapter, “The Coldness of Public Places”. He tells of his mother’s “nightly bout[s] of weeping, faintly girlish, expressing exhaustion rather than sorrow. As a plea to Jean [his stepfather], they never worked” (137). He goes to his room to collect his schoolbooks, with no rumination, no personal reaction to his mother crying, but later, in the library, when he witnesses the hidden anguish of a young girl, he is shaken. He writes, “I recoiled from the peephole as if a needle had pierced my pupil. In a frenzy of confusion I began sorting books as if nothing had happened” (140).
Conroy’s narrative is episodic, with a somewhat disjointed forward motion. Trees, cars, travel, and shadows are recurring motifs, which serve to underscore his innate need to dissociate himself from his life. He writes of both feeling invisible and wanting to disappear, as when he hides within the dog kennel as a child and when he drives drunk as an adult. He tries to find a sense of family with the dogs, but after their sudden, inexplicable feral behavior, they become as much a mystery to him as his own family is. He writes, “They had their own cabal from which I was excluded” (105). He hides in trees from his mother, and as a teenager he runs away from his stepfather, hitch-hiking toward Florida until he realizes he will never see his baby sister again.
It seems that his baby sister is the one family member toward which he feels affection and from whom he doesn’t hide, yet she is the one character about whom he almost completely excludes from his memoir. We meet her as a baby—and that’s it. His mother spirits her off to Denmark, and when they come back, we have no sense of who she is as a person. When she is a baby, and he is fascinated by her, he mentions that she is important simply because she exists. His silence on the matter seems to underscore this.
What I take away from Conroy’s memoir as a writer is the idea that even ordinary events are worth writing about. I’m stuck sometimes because I think everything has to be dramatic or horrific, and while I have plenty such events to write about, I worry that the reader will come away from my story with sadness, rather than the hope I prefer. Conroy reminds me that a story is more than the sum of its parts. He also shows that one’s writing is, indeed, informed by what one reads.
Butterfield’s portrayal of Willie Bosket should be required reading in college ethnic courses as well as those of American history. His careful rendering of the details of Willie’s family history along with that of Edgefield, South Carolina reveals a disturbing pattern of distorted ethics that I have never encountered in all my years of schooling. Yes, we read about slavery, but we don’t learn about how its effects continue to resonate in our current culture, nor do we learn about the insidious nature of the “code of honor” in the South.
All God’s Children demonstrates not only the importance of fathers in the role of a child’s life, but also the subtle way parents influence their children’s behavior. One counselor noted that Willie’s real problem “…has to do with his underlying sense of inferiority and insecurity and the rage which he personally feels towards his mother and which his mother expresses to the world partly through his behavior…the real trouble was Laura and her rage at having been mistreated” (192). This is illustrated by her laughing at his bad behavior at different points in the narrative. She does nothing not because she feels helpless but because she is vicariously venting through Willie—and it is Willie who pays the ultimate price.
That Willie’s photo is featured in promotional material for a reform school is savagely ironic. That he begins acting out at eight years old and no one rescues him is heartbreaking. That he survives his childhood is mystifying.
What is also baffling is that our nation continues to regard penal institutions as a catch-all solution to crime. Willie is clearly the product of an ineffectual system that took up where his family left off. Breaking family chains of dysfunction requires taking a risk, but if the mother herself is unaware of those patterns, how can she address the issue? Willie’s mother didn’t know, and was so steeped in her own rage that she didn’t care. What difference might she have made if she had cared?
Poverty is a key issue in Willie’s story. He gets passed around various institutions, and it seems the only thing that would have brought a caring adult into his life—one willing to take a risk for an extended amount of time—is money. Money would have bought him psychological attention, for one thing, and it would have filled his tummy when he was little, when he was on the streets trying to make a buck for food.
It is altogether chilling that our nation has this undercurrent of historical violence that seems to go unnoticed. We sanitize our history books and continue to repeat our mistakes, and Butterfield aptly demonstrates how dangerous this is. While he doesn’t offer one concrete solution, his research illuminates both where we’ve come from and where we should not continue. And lest anyone should think his actions are inconsequential, he should note what inaction creates.