Thursday, September 20, 2012

as many possessions as a vehicle could carry

So, a repetition, things coming in threes, me reading a review of Gerald Murnane's Inland at the Complete Review and seeing that M.A Orthofer had identified the author of a quote that Murnane didn't attribute, and then me the next day opening William Least Heat-Moon's non-fictional Blue Highways and encountering a woman named Barbara Pierre, "a secretary at the agency and took classes at the University of Southwestern Louisiana when she could," who had underlined two sentences on page eighty-five of her copy of Miguel Ángel Asturias' El Señor Presidente: "The chief thing is to gain time. We must be patient."

I went to the shelf for my copy of Presidente and found the same words on the same page. "You'll endanger yourself, you'll endanger your father, you'll endanger me. I'll come back this evening and take you to your father's house. The chief thing is to gain time. We must be patient. One can't arrange everything all at once -- some things are trickier than others," says a male character to a young woman, both of them existing for that moment in an atmosphere of threats and planning, which is Pierre's position too, but hers is not so compressed; it's a long-term lurking pressure of racism in the town where she is about to be fired from her job. The street is dangerous, says Asturias, who is being translated by Frances Partridge.

A house makes it possible to eat one's bread in privacy -- and bread eaten in privacy is sweet, it teaches one wisdom -- a house enjoys the safety of permanence and of being socially approved; it is like a family portrait with the father wearing his best tie, the mother displaying her finest jewels and the children's hair brushed with real eau de Cologne. The street, on the other hand, is an unstable, dangerous, adventurous world, false as a looking-glass --

-- which Heat-Moon will not believe as he drives around the United States in a converted van, talking to lurkers and feeling irritable when he sees a rich couple cushioning themselves inside a massive comfy campervan, "an Airstream trailer ... Often I'd seen the American propensity to take to the highway with as many possessions as a vehicle could carry -- that inclination to get away from it all while hauling it all along -- but I stood amazed at this achievement of transport called a vacation ... in the trailer I saw pine paneling, Swiss cupboards, and a self-cleaning oven. What the owner really wanted was to drive his 3-BR-splitfoyer so he wouldn't have to leave the garage and basement behind."

Disliking these people he decides he will read their behaviour scornfully; he has heard of these attitudes somewhere, the ones he attributes to them, he has discerned this caricature, or he secretly inhabits it himself, this fear (and afterwards, interviewed, Heat-Moon said that he felt afraid on the trip, in ways that he does not reveal in the book, though not specifically like this --). "The couple ... hoisted themselves into the Argosy, and clicked locks against my type ... After all, they read the papers, they watched TV, and they knew America was a dangerous place." America is not so dangerous, he tells his readers, always pointing back to the Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass he has brought with him and from which he quotes regularly; when a hitchhiker tries to convert him to Christianity he trades extracts with the man, giving him a Whitman for a Corinthians, and they enjoy one another. The evangelist has grown a huge beard and obtained a small apple, he eats the apple and carries his clothes in an aluminium suitcase, smiling regularly and stating his blessings.


  1. [This comes from Whispering Gums, whose strivings, though valiant, were repelled somehow by Blogger.]

    "Love your references to William Least Heat Moon ... I never did quite finish that book but much of what I did read has stayed with me. His humour I think. I loved, early in the book, his description of towns (in the South I think) with names like Hopeless and Defeated. I loved the name of his van, Ghost Dancing as I recollect. But now you remind me that he kept quoting Leaves of grass and I want to pick up my copy and start it again but I don't really have the time for that so I'll just enjoy your post/s."

    1. He mythologises himself very smartly, I thought -- calling his van Ghost Dancing, telling you that the only books he took were the Whitman and, I think, Black Elk Speaks, but being so apparently open in his tone that the touches that might have come across as pretentious (the austerity of only two books, carefully selected, and the explanation of the Native American surname -- I didn't realise until I came here how Americans will tell you that they're "one eighth Cherokee," or "part Indian," where people at home don't usually make a point of telling you that they're "one-sixteenth Yolngu," or whatever -- and why do they do this, I wonder, when we don't?) were mitigated.

    2. Let's see if it repels me again! I remember him describing why he was "Least" Heat Moon.

      As for "one eight Cherokee" etc, yes, good point. Here in fact it's politically incorrect for non-indigenous people to describe indigenous people in that way, for valid reasons I think given this country's history. I suspect therefore that they don't describe themselves that way either. For them, the issue is their cultural identification not "how much" of anything they've got. I must say I don't go around saying I'm 1/8th Danish and 1/4 Welsh but I do say I have Welsh and Danish ancestors. It's a matter of pride in a way isn't it - or, at least, fascination with where we've come from. I'm assuming that's why the Americans do it? Pride?

    3. A way of saying, "I belong here, I'm joined to the land"? It seems to be one of those quirks that pops up in a culture and survives like a river, kept vital by multiple tributaries, and pictures of the noble thoughtful indigene standing in front of moon or sun with an aphorism UFOing overhead don't hurt either. (The library at UNLV has a row of these pictures along one of the walls.)