The Bushwhacked Piano

Thomas McGuane’s second novel, originally published in 1971 to critical reviews, is a hysterical commentary on the state of the American psyche seen through the eyes and lived through the misadventures of wayward entrepreneur Nicholas Payne.

Follow Payne as he pursues the hand of a doughty millionairess and joins sides with a double amputee con-man (the bionic man!) as they attempt to sell glow-in-the-dark bats that will rid entire towns of mosquitos overnight (or so they say).

One of the most uniquely funny and linguistically savvy voices in American Letters, The Bushwhacked Piano is the perfect balance of literary panache and buoyantly side-splitting hilarity.

Whitman, Keats, and Allergies: Is Truth Truly Beauty?

I went running in a nearby park over the weekend resulting in a monumental allergy attack. My face swelled to balloon-like proportions, I was crying though not sad, and sneezing like I’d snorted a fistful of black pepper. I have allergies that have their own allergies. The attack was so severe I opted out of dinner plans and laid on the couch in a self-induced Benadryl coma covered by a blanket of self-pity, and detest for the unfairness of the world.

10_1The next day, mid-recovery, eyes puffy, still sneezing, I fell into my usual pattern of self-loathing. Why me? Why am I the unlucky one allergic to the natural world? Languishing in self-pity is anything but productive. Laying there, I shifted my gaze to the bay window in my living room that opens up onto the street. I watched as a mother and son rode bikes. They were laughing and the mother was showing her son how to ride with no hands.

The son, no more than six or seven, tried to mimic the demonstration only to fall and scrape his knees (I, of course, laughing uproariously through swollen eyelids). There was a moment where he was shaken, but eventually, he stood, brushed himself off, and continued to ride.

There’s a line in Whitman’s Song of Myself about how “all truths wait in all things,” and sitting there witnessing another’s triumph over suffering while I labored away in my snot-covered decrepitude, nothing had ever seemed truer.

Who was I to let something as menial and base as allergies get me down? The very reason I was hiding inside was out of fear of showing my purplish face in public, but more than anything it was out of fear of appearing different; fear of hiding the truth that I’m one of the unlucky ones who has to fight through the spring-time pollen storms. But really, fear that others would deem me as somehow lesser of a man because of something entirely out of my control.

Fear is ridiculous. I am who I am, purplish-swollen eyes and all.

photo-1425009294879-3f15dd0b4ed5There’s truth in action; truth behind the simplicity of falling, shaking off, and moving on. Conceptually, we see truth as something akin to the tooth fairy. Maybe we’ll catch a glimpse when we’re little, but otherwise, it’s nonexistent. When in actuality, truth is the undercurrent of life. It is pervasive and ubiquitous like energy or light.

What Whitman nailed so wonderfully is the fact that truth isn’t always pleasing, nor is it entirely beautiful–it is all-encompassing. Keats, God love him, missed the mark in writing that the two are one in the same. The truth can oftentimes be as ugly and purple as my face when I inhale pollen.

Real beauty, however resides is wearing one’s imperfections on their sleeve, no matter what the flaw.

Giovanni’s Room: Precision in Locale

Fiction, in and of itself is a mess. It’s a smattering and oblong mixture of stylistic tendency, grammatical preference, and poetic nuance. Throw in the author’s eccentricities and idiosyncrasies and you’ve got yourself a serious novel.

But fiction itself is oblong. It’s a colossal whale undulating to the rhythms of the sea of literature. Because of its immensity–precision, or the ability to say what one really means–from an author’s standpoint–has become a rarity. Personal opinion and true artistic intent has taken a backseat to the commerciality and viability of the masque. That which covers has become the true face of the successful author.

But the cornerstone of good fiction, and I mean really good fiction is precision in language. The author must carve their sentences from granite and hope to God that what lies beneath the rubble is something pristine and worth looking at.

In the case of Giovanni’s Room the essence of precision is nothing short of astounding. Baldwin is an artist in the truest sense. He’s a man who sticks to his convictions and writes prose with true artistic validity–that is–he goes for the jugular in hopes of throttling change out of a culture in stasis.

Homosexual and black in the 1950’s–Baldwin fled the U.S. and settled in Paris for a number of years, forming the basis of Giovanni’s Room. The novel is the story of an American ex-pat who fled to Paris from his own fear of coming to terms with his sexuality. Ultimately, he settles in Paris, specifically– in a man named Giovanni’s room–where he’s able, if only for a short while, to explore that which forms the essence of his being.

The novel is far from the meanderings of an ex-pat in Paris. Where Baldwin truly elevates his story is in his ability to transform the landscape itself into a character. In Baldwin’s world, Paris is more than a simple city. It is ethereal, steamy, it takes on the fluid transcendent characteristics of a lover, and as such becomes fleeting and evasive like the last touch before saying goodbye. All of which is conveyed by Baldwin’s, tensilary, brittle prose. His writing is delicate and rigid, stretched to the point of snapping, revealing the delicate skeleton-framework beneath.

Ripe with heartbreak, the struggles of coming to terms with self, and the immense difficulties behind attempting to be authentic in a society where your true face is a blackguard–that which is shunned and not acceptable to don in public. Baldwin was a pioneer, and Giovanni’s Room is nothing short of beautiful, if not groundbreaking at a time when ground desperately needed to be broken.