Doctor-Professor Lothar de Groot's Holiday Gift Guide
Smyles & Fish treats its writers well. I can attest to the fact that Iris Smyles herself spared no expense when sending me again to Africa to interview the genetic engineer and sybarite Dr.-Prof. Lothar de Groot. The Doctor-Professor had sent Ms. Smyles an email explaining that he wished to provide the magazine with a holiday gift guide. "I state truthfully, "he wrote," that I have stared the beast of holiday shopping in the eye and that I have not flinched." He requested, specifically, that I meet him in person in order to obtain his guide. Ms. Smyles provided me an expense account without hesitation and I boarded a KLM airliner later that day, winging towards the Doctor-Professor's home and laboratory in Zambia's copperbelt (patient readers of my column will note that the Doctor-Professor's impressive castle in the Central African Republic was destroyed by insurgents).
When I arrived at de Groot's winter quarters I found a richly appointed guest room stocked with all my favorite foods. He had predicted my culinary requirements with unerring accuracy. He had provided the ormolu-inlaid refrigerator with kalamata olives, peppered salami, and even the precise type of Hot Pocket which I prefer. I later learned that the celebrated natural philosopher of cruelty had simply dispatched his agents to my home and thus learned precisely and accurately my tastes. Circumstances had compelled them to commit several murders in the course of their investigation; these crimes caused me difficulties at immigration when I returned to the United States.
I get ahead of myself. The journey to his home was not without incident. The Doctor-Professor's driver and confidant Karl-Heinz picked me up at the clubhouse of the Nchanga golf course, an opulent oasis in rural Zambia. He arrived in a black Geländewagen without license plates. He looked much as I remembered him, a sneer marring his otherwise handsome features. Despite the heat he wore vinyl overalls and a heavy boiler coat. He presented me with a leather blindfold fancifully decorated with staring eyes - "Visitors are not permitted to learn the location of the Doctor-Professor's residence," he lisped. A six-hour trip in pitch blackness delivered us to a narrow defile high in the mountains. Karl-Heinz removed my blindfold with a pair of antique forceps, chuckling to himself. Emaciated figures stood along the hills watching our ascent, clutching vibrant shawls over their gaunt heads. "They are the boy-wives of the miners," Karl-Heinz told me, managing the shifter, the steering wheel, and a fleshy nectarine at the same time. Smoke rose from fires along the road; they were burning garbage and brush. Juice shone on Karl-Heinz's sculptured jaw.
Inside, the mine was cold, though elegant throughout. Rare rugs and burnished antiques occupied the stone rooms. Dr.-Prof. de Groot met me at a grand blackwood table before a roaring fire. We dined on candied almonds and slivers of aspic. A bowl of bananas sat untouched atop a spotless cloth in the middle of the table.
"Let me begin," the Doctor-Professor told me, toying with a serrated grapefruit spoon, "with Jacques Lacan. Surely you are familiar with his notion of the death drive? This most pure and critical faculty of the human that sets each of us roving like a shark, desiring what we lack and despising what we have?" I nodded.
Karl-Heinz emerged from an alcove wheeling a barbaric brass device that proved to be a projector. The lens emerged from the mouth of a leering caryatid who clung like a contortionist to the front of a rough cube braced with metallic bones; the machine emitted a soporific smoke. Karl-Heinz operated it by means of a sharkskin-handled crank. Icy water dripped from the ceiling on occasion, and when it struck the projector it hissed immediately into steam. The Doctor-Professor spoke at length to accompany his images as they appeared on a screen of unwholesome bleached leather. I tried not to think of what hideous celluloid the slides themselves must have been composed. As I was leaving he provided me with a novelty USB drive in the shape of a human thumb; it contained the images of his gift recommendations as well as the full text of his remarks, which I have provided unedited below.
* * *
Krone Abraham Lincoln Fountain Pen
My mind's eye dilates upon the figure of Lincoln. Who could not find a certain horrific attraction in that equine, distended face? Those rough pores and sensuous lips, that satyr's beard, those wells of anguish that were his eyes? Who does not receive a frisson when pondering his death agonies, crammed pitifully into a short square bed across from the ill-famed Ford Theater? Yet also, who does not wonder at the gilt veneer of history, the hammered gold which closes up the man who must have breathed and eaten? Who does not, in his most secret heart, wish to keep something of Lincoln for himself, to consume him like a Guayaki sacro-cannibal? What better way to lay astride the razor's edge of these questions than to write with a fountain pen containing a synthetic fragment of the Emancipator's DNA, unearthed and recreated by the eerie hand of PCR? I use mine to address letters, which I subsequently force Karl-Heinz to eat. Ink is not included, although I recommend Noodler's "American Eel" in a suitably sober black.
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred
Think on the noble scout, his alabaster skin all blood besmirched, the blushing flower of youth faded from his downy cheeks, his tall shako trod in the mud by the brutal heels of the sergeant. The sergeant's coarse red mouth gapes with glee until the petard's blast destroys him completely; the spy awaits the marshal by the shore, his collars turned against the damp breeze and his mind consumed with thoughts of murder. On the small stage of Stratego the murderous thunder of war unfolds, the spectacle of squandered potential and lurid suffering dramatized by crenellated plastic chits. The Heirloom edition of the game comes in an attractive wooden box that resembles the kind of false book in which dullards place their valuables.
Cannoli and Forceps (available at many fine grocery and medical supply stores)
Beneath the pastry shell of the cannoli its heart of sweet Italian cheese beats. I derive much joy from teasing apart the pastry and humiliating the cannoli, prizing out the gelid center and discarding like so much dross its once-proud shield of dough.
Kalmbach-Meyers Tiny Head (available wherever illegal and obscene surgeries are sold)
Because I have the great fortune to move in the circles of libertine scientists who have shed the mantle of bourgeois society like so much antiquated cannoli-wrapping, I often come across novel, repulsive surgical techniques which free-thinkers procure for themselves or for certain docile friends. My field is the natural philosophy of fruit, so I do not quail or carp at the hubris of these surgeons; rather I marvel at their daring. Kalmbach and Meyers, working together in a zeppelin hovering over Switzerland, have perfected a surgery that installs a tiny, vicious head inside the mouth of the patient. This head emerges to snap and gnaw or to emit uncanny shrieks. The procedure is very expensive, and usually disfiguring in more than the obvious way.
* * *
The rest of the professor's recommendations do not merit listing here - although he may have impeccable taste in the fields of horse-armor, sacral waxes, and rare bacteria, I doubt that many of our readers require information on those fields. I also must report with a shade of embarrassment that the second half of his presentation drew heavily from the Skymall catalogue, although I learned later that his copy had been obtained from an Acela train.
I must also apologize for the fact that this gift guide will reach its readers long after the holidays are over; I was unable to submit it in time since Karl-Heinz insisted on delivering me to Lusaka by riverboat, a trip which consumed four weeks. We passed languid days floating downstream on an antiquated steam ship. My muscles grew hard and ropy as I tended the coal-fires and worked before the mast. Karl-Heinz, away from the Doctor-Professor's strict hand, became more and more eccentric, daubing himself with river mud and drinking lemon schnapps directly from the bottle. He resembled a picaresque idol with his crown of palm fronds and frightening, decorated face. He confessed to me one night that he believed himself to be the reincarnation of a catapult operator who lived in Nemours in 1471.
Ari Samsky is a medical anthropologist living in New Hampshire where he pursues manly hobbies such as tting wood, cleaning and maintaining fountain pens, and backgammon à la misère. His work has appeared in the Nassau Literary Review and Beeswax magazine.
Pluto, Animal Lover
Before she published the arguably less literary Bohemian Manifesto: A Field Guide to Living on the Edge (Bulfinch, 2004) and The Bombshell Manual of Style (Hyperion, 2001), Laren Stover published her first, and so far only, novel, Pluto, Animal Lover (HarperCollins, 1994). The novel came and went with little critical notice, with the apex of its publication a mixed review by Joe Queenan in the New York Times. Despite its lack of acclaim or sales success, the novel has haunted me ever since I first read it, holding my attention more than any other book I have read during the last thirteen years.
I remember everything about the novel, including where I sat while first reading it (in a Subway sandwich shop in Pensacola, Florida), the feel of the small hardcover book in my hands (4.5 inches by 6 inches, a size that was in vogue for a short while during the mid-1990s), the glamorous black and white author photograph that covered the back of the dust jacket. The front cover featured a faded photograph of a black chicken, a man's hand with dirty fingernails clutching its neck. But far more significant than these memories is the mood of the novel's dark story and the chilling narrator's voice and actions.
I have read the book at least once a year since it was published, and although a few things in it are beginning to seem dated, it continues to impress every time. Although I feel a pang of apprehension for admitting this about this book, given the numerous novels from writers with greater names and reputations that I have read since first reading Pluto, Animal Lover, it is, by far, the book I have most often recommended to both my students of literature and creative writing.
The novel’s story is as simple as its narrator’s personality is twisted. The novel concerns Pluto Hellbender Gerome, a volunteer ASPCA dog walker and the editor of a medical journal dedicated to the pancreas. He follows a twisted logic and philosophy from simple eccentricity to what I will call pathological, homicidal sympathy. The novel is written as an extended internal monologue in Pluto's voice; everything is tempered and filtered through his self-serving psyche. And everything we learn about the reactions to his increasingly strange behavior is filtered by his unique take on their responses.
Although they are not meant to excuse it (but perhaps to simply justify it) we do learn, through Pluto's own reflections, the apparent causes for his behavior. Born in New Orleans, the son of a woman who might have been a prostitute, Pluto's naïve, at times comic, descriptions of her life seem to inform his actions. And, perhaps more important, Pluto was clearly abused by an evil, sadistic stepfather.
Against the backdrop of early 1990s Manhattan, Pluto's admirable sympathy for the city's pets tips to a pathological desire to surreptitiously kill them to prevent what he perceives as their continued abuse. By the end of the novel it is apparent that Pluto is on the verge of applying the same logic to his fellow citizens of New York, whose lives he sees, in a spin of sympathy, to be not worth living. In particular, Pluto wants to end the miserable life of his co-volunteer, would-be composer, and girlfriend Wanda, whose life he learns is also, in his thinking, not worth living.
Nominated for a 1994 Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, Pluto, Animal Lover received little critical notice when it was published in 1994. Delilah Jones, reviewing the novel in the St. Petersburg Times, described Stover as "a really deranged, deliciously talented writer," from whom she wished to see more work, but called the book "silly." Another reviewer, Ron Rollins, in the Dayton Daily News, wrote: "Pluto is a sick little man, and Pluto, Animal Lover is a strange little book. But it's also compellingly readable."
Joe Queenan's review of the book in the New York Times proposes that Stover's efforts ultimately fail when she takes her macabre book into what Queenan calls her "Bret Easton Ellis mode" in describing Pluto's crucifixion of a live cat. Queenan unfortunately misses the point, and art, of the novel by passing judgment on the character's actions (he concludes his review with "All in all, Pluto is one sick pup") rather than on the technical and aesthetic successes of the novel.
The most important (and overlooked) aspect of the novel is its artful use of voice in monologue. While providing the gruesome details of the narrator's actions, the novel also builds empathy for what could easily be a contemptible, insufferable, non-readable character. Not since the immediacy and delusional honesty of Holden Caulfield's voice has an American writer, employing first person narration, captured with authenticity and unblinking courage the internal life (as well as pathology and eccentricity) of a character. The novel is a marvel for capturing the internal monologue of a psychopath as he degenerates from mere amusing quirkiness to homicidal empathy.
I wish there were a prize awarded to novels that, after perhaps ten years or so, are deemed worthy of renewed attention and consideration. I would nominate Pluto, Animal Lover for just such a prize so that readers and reviewers would give it a second chance.
[For New York readers, at last perusal multiple copies of Pluto, Animal Lover were on the shelves at The Strand and other second hand bookstores in Manhattan. For readers outside of New York, the book can be had on Amazon.com for as little as one cent (plus postage) and at ABEbooks.com for one dollar.]
Carlos Dews was born into a world-class cockfighting family in East Texas but fled to the halls of academe where he received a Ph.D. in American literature. After ten years as a university professor he escaped the noose of tenure to write fiction and book reviews. He knows more about Carson McCullers's life and work than he knows about himself.
Fenimore Cooper's Further Literary Offenses [Part 2]
I must come back with some frequency, in the course of these Lectures, to the matter of Cooper's inaccuracy as an Observer. In this way I shall hope to persuade you that it is well to look at a thing carefully before you try to describe it; but I shall rest you between times with other matters and thus try to avoid over-fatiguing you with that detail of our theme.
In The Last of the Mohicans Cooper gets up a stirring "situation" on an island flanked by great cataracts â€“ a lofty island with steep sides â€“ a sort of tongue which projects downstream from the midst of the divided waterfall. There are caverns in this mass of rock, and a party of Cooper people hide themselves in one of these to get away from some hostile Indians. There is a small exit at each end of this cavern. These exits are closed with blankets and the light excluded. The exploring hostiles back themselves up against the blankets and rave and rage in a blood-curdling way, but they are Cooper Indians and of course fail to discover the blankets; so they presently go away baffled and disappointed. Alice, in her gratitude for this deliverance, flings herself on her knees to return thanks. The darkness in there must have been pretty solid; yet if we may believe Cooper, it was a darkness which could not have been told from daylight, for here are some nice details which were visible in it:
"Both Heyward and the more tempered Cora witnessed the act of involuntary emotion with powerful sympathy, the former secretly believing that piety had never worn a form so lovely as it had now assumed in the youthful person of Alice. Her eyes were radiant with the glow of grateful feelings; the flush of her beauty was again seated on her cheeks, and her whole soul seemed ready and anxious to pour out its thanksgivings, through the medium of her eloquent features. But when her lips moved, the words they should have uttered appeared frozen by some new and sudden chill. Her bloom gave place to the paleness of death; her soft and melting eyes grew hard, and seemed contracting with horror; while those hands which she had raised, clasped in each other, towards heaven, dropped in horizontal lines before her, the fingers pointed forward in convulsed motion."
It is a case of strikingly inexact observation. Heyward and the more tempered Cora could not have seen the half of it in the dark that way.
I must call your attention to certain details of this work of art which invite particular examination. "Involuntary" is surplusage, and violates Rule 141 all emotion is involuntary when genuine, and then the qualifying term is not needed; a qualifying term is needed only when the emotion is pumped-up and ungenuine. "Secretly" is surplusage, too; because Heyward was not believing out loud, but all to himself; and a person cannot believe a thing all to himself without doing it privately. I do not approve of the word "seated," to describe the process of locating a flush. No one can seat a flush. A flush is not a deposit or an exterior surface, it is a something which squashes out from within.
I cannot approve of the word "new." If Alice had an old chill, formerly, it would be all right to distinguish this one from that one by calling this one the new chill; but she had not had any old chill, this one was the only chill she had had, up till now, and so the tacit reference to an old anterior chill is unwarranted and misleading. And I do not altogether like the phrase "while those hands which she had raised." It seems to imply that she had some other hands â€“ some other ones which she had put on a shelf a minute so as to give her a better chance to raise these ones in front of her and work the fingers. I think that that is a very good effect. And it would have almost doubled the effect if the more tempered Cora had done it some, too.
A Cooper Indian who has been washed is a poor thing, and commonplace; it is the Cooper Indian in his paint that thrills. Cooper's extra words are Cooper's paint - his paint, his feathers, his tomahawk, his war whoop.
In the two-thirds of a page elsewhere referred to, wherein Cooper scored 114 literary transgressions out of a possible 115, he appears before us with all his things on. As follows, the italics are mine - they indicate violations of Rule 14:
In a minute he was once more fastened to the tree, a helpless object of any insult or wrong that might be offered. So eagerly did every one now act, that nothing was said. The fire was immediately lighted in the pile, and the end of all was anxiously expected.
It was not the intention of the Hurons absolutely to destroy the life of their victim by means of fire. They designed merely to put his physical fortitude to the severest proofs it could endure, short of that extremity. In the end, they fully intended to carry his scalp into their village, but it was their wish first to break down his resolution, and to reduce him to the level of a complaining sufferer. With this view, the pile of brush and branches had been placed at a proper distance, or one at which it was thought the heat would soon become intolerable, though it might not be immediately dangerous. As often happened, however, on these occasions, this distance had been miscalculated, and the flames began to wave their forked tongues in a proximity to the face of the victim that would have proved fatal in another instant had not Hetty rushed through the crowd, armed with a stick, and scattered the blazing pile in a dozen directions. More than one hand was raised to strike the presumptuous intruder to the earth; but the chiefs prevented the blows by reminding their irritated followers of the state of her mind. Hetty, herself, was insensible to the risk she ran; but, as soon as she had performed this bold act, she stood looking about her in frowning resentment, as if to rebuke the crowd of attentive savages for their cruelty.
'God bless you, dearest sister, for that brave and ready act,' murmured Judith, herself unnerved so much as to be incapable of exertion; 'Heaven itself has sent you on its holy errand.'
Number of words, 320; necessary ones, 220; words wasted by the generous spendthrift, 100.
In our day those 100 unnecessary words would have to come out. We will take them out presently and make the episode approximate the modern requirement in the matter of compression.
If we may consider each unnecessary word in Cooper's report of that barbecue a separate and individual violation of Rule 14, then that rule is violated 100 times in that report. Other rules are violated in it. Rule 12, two instances; Rule 13, three instances; Rule 15, one instance; Rule 16, two instances; Rule 17, one or two little instances; the Report in its entirety is an offense against Rule 18 - also against Rule 16. Total score, about 114 violations of the laws of literary art out of a possible 115.
Let us now bring forward the Report again, with most of the unnecessary words knocked out. By departing from Cooper's style and manner, all the facts could be put into 150 words, and the effects heightened at the same time - this is manifest, of course - but that would not be desirable. We must stick to Cooper's language as closely as we can:
In a minute he was once more fastened to the tree. The fire was immediately lighted. It was not the intention of the Hurons to destroy Deerslayer's life by fire; they designed merely to put his fortitude to the severest proofs it could endure short of that extremity. In the end, they fully intended to take his life, but it was their wish first to break down his resolution and reduce him to a complaining sufferer. With this view the pile of brush had been placed at a distance at which it was thought the heat would soon become intolerable, without being immediately dangerous. But this distance had been miscalculated; the fire was so close to the victim that he would have been fatally burned in another instant if Hetty had not rushed through the crowd and scattered the brands with a stick. More than one Indian raised his hand to strike her down but the chiefs saved her by reminding them of the state of her mind. Hetty herself was insensible to the risk she ran; she stood looking about her in frowning resentment, as if to rebuke the savages for their cruelty.
'God bless you dear!' cried Judith, 'for that brave and ready act. Heaven itself has sent you on its holy errand, and you shall have a chromo.'
Number of words, 220 - and the facts are all in.
From Studies in Literary Criticism. Lecture 2. Prepared for last term by Mark Twain, M.A., Professor of Belles Lettres in the Veterinary College of Arizona.
The Marx Brothers in A Day at the University.
Growing up in the Bronx in the 1940s, I went to the movies instead of the playground. For thirteen cents I could stay at the theater most of Saturday. In the dark by myself, away from the authority of teachers and bluster of peers, from morning to late afternoon, I’d watch serials like Flash Gordon, double and sometimes even triple features, and if I were really lucky, re-runs of the Marx Brothers.
I loved the Marx Brothers, as did everyone in the theater those weekends, as did, it seemed, the whole universe. The neighborhood grocer, most anyone next to you on the public bus or phone, Fred at the corner, making a dance of smoking cigarettes, pretty and ugly local girls that I would kiss, the former convict come fine artist across town, the Surrealists in Europe, and T.S. Eliot, too, were all fans like me. Far away from Arthur Avenue, even the august and aloof world of intellectuals (for which I would one day leave my Bronx boyhood behind, becoming an art and film critic, a novelist, and even Professor) embraced Groucho.
I love Animal Crackers, especially. Even the snack is ennobled by the association. If it weren’t for my diabetes, my sensitive heart condition (I fall in love easily), my thyroid, and complications surrounding the trade of Ocelot hides in the Congo (July ’83, my only foray into business), I would eat only Animal Crackers and watch only Animal Crackers. I would also drink heavily, smoke whatever’s flammable, and organize a gang of mischievous art critics; we’d break into the workshops of east village conceptual artists late at night to sew up the holes in their clothes and leave reproductions of Poussin paintings in place of “the carefully stacked cheese doodles” on canvas, 12x17. Or, I’d distribute wine via the internet making money an art, and wash my hair in salad. But my salad days are behind me.
The Marx Brothers recent retrospective at Symphony Space, NYC, however, brought my appreciation for their misrule and my own respective delinquency back to life. Groucho of the painted moustache, Groucho of the rubbery-legged dance and lecherous eye rolls. Groucho is usually a figure of great expectation, heralded by fanfare of trumpets and song. He is the brave African Explorer, Captain Spaulding, who, after great adventures, has come home to vacation at the estate of a wealthy woman and her weekend guests (Animal Crackers); or he is the anointed Premier come to save the nation of Freedonia under the financial gun (Duck Soup); or the noted Doctor Hackenbush, called to a sanitarium to treat a rich woman clinging to her imaginary maladies and who is searching for a doctor to confirm them (A Day at the Races).
The brave African Explorer reveals himself a fainting coward; the Great Statesman and Savior lazily brings ruin and war to the nation he has been enlisted to rescue; the brilliant Doctor is in fact a down and out veterinarian, his medications to his human patients golf-ball size pills. In his roles, Groucho is an endearing charlatan for whom no one and nothing is sacred, and whose greatest theme is his will to survive. In which pursuit, almost as a side trip, he and his brothers, Harpo and Chico, bring down the Houses of Pretension, High Culture, and Convention, turning a night at the opera into a Keystone Cops chase, or transforming a convention of political dignitaries into a faux minstrel show or converting a medical exam into Bedlam. Zeppo is often the straight man, allowing the brothers access. Zeppo rarely appears, seeming almost always to be in just the other room. Harpo is very good at cutting pompous men’s ties in mid-conversation, Chico at swindles involving racing tips, and Groucho is good for the all-around eye rolling schmoozing of women of wealth—marriage and a cushioned life his aim.
The films remain as rebellious and madcap now as when I walked out from the movie house all those years ago. As a boy, I was made braver, my spirit sharpened by the brothers’ iconoclastic trickery, which adults tolerated in us kids only because we were young, because we were expected to grow up eventually.
Seeing the films today, a grown up as was planned, I still feel, despite all my adult manners, that same mischievous bug alive inside me—smoking a cigar in wire rimmed glasses, having managed through so many years to withstand the soft spots of my heart, and whatever plagues come to get us, diabetes, thyroid issues, and even academic affiliations.
Looking back, perhaps it was the Marx Brothers who planted in me the suspicion of Schools, of Big Shots with Titles, of Grande Dames with a love for Opera and Lawn Parties. Much of my life has been spent in the University, at art openings, and at Hampton lawn parties (I ask for the Animal Crackers. They are always out.), feeling always despite my being welcomed, something of an imposter—the boy from the Bronx as the Great Explorer. Perhaps it was my mustache…
Reviewing the movies again, after that long lunch of my thirties, I feel now, as when a boy, the same affinity and appreciation for their easily overlooked heroism. Harpo at the end of Animal Crackers, as The Professor with something up his sleeve—all the silverware in the house! Suffering reprimands at the hands of “adults,” he stole not because he needed to, but because it was fun. F. Scott Fitzgerald, another of my beloved miscreants, wrote also of the boyhood dream of becoming a burglar. To be true, I never wanted to steal anything myself—maybe hearts and types of glances, but I understand the romance anyway, and the need to laugh at the serious in order to understand it.
Groucho was a critic in this way. Amidst the high pretensions of his surroundings while being honored at a society affair, following the promise of exalted musical theatre cliché, a note of introduction is sung: Groucho commences his rubbery legged dance. I can see Harpo, too, cutting ties in a movie unmade—A Day at the University. Harpo, playing the Professor again, a pre-Chomsky linguist. They should have adopted me. I could have been Zeppo, the seldom seen, Chair of the Department!
Frederic Tuten is the author of five novels: The Adventures of Mao on the Long March; Tallien: A Brief Romance; Tintin in the New World; Van Gogh’s Bad Café; and most recently, The Green Hour. Dr. Tuten has taught courses on American films at The City College of New York and The University of Paris 8 and has written on art, film and literature for such publications as Art Forum, Art in America, The New York Times, Vogue, Vanity Fair. He has published essays on R.B. Kitaj, David Salle, Roy Litchtenstein, Eric Fischl, and John Baldessari. In 1973, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing and in 2000 was given the Award for Distinguished Writing from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.