Saturday, March 24, 2018

Kevin Williamson's Heart of Darkness

In honor of Kevin D. Williamson's accession from the National Review to the hallowed precincts of The Atlantic, I'm reposting what I'm pretty sure is the funniest piece I've written about him and his remarkable literary style (plus bonus Duke Ellington), from August 2014:

Papa K illustrating the "West Side" sign, possibly making a universal gesture of primate territorial challenge as well.
I just found out (via Sick Horses) that National Review has taken to running literary fiction, starting with a charming effort by its "roving correspondent" and Chancellor of the Exchequer Kevin Williamson, entitled "Where the Sidewalk Ends: Danger and Despair in Pat Quinn's Crumbling Illinois".

The story is a journey narrative, a re-imagining of a trip to East St. Louis, Illinois, as an enchanted, surreal landscape seen through a child's eyes, taking its cue, as the title makes clear, from Shel Silverstein's poem:
There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.
Indeed, the piece begins with the moon-bird:
‘Hey, hey craaaaaacka! Cracka! White devil! F*** you, white devil!” The guy... glances slyly from side to side, making sure his audience is taking all this in, before raising his palms to his clavicles, elbows akimbo, in the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge.
But Williamson's nameless, unreliable narrator is beset by anxiety, and resists the enchantment; his moon-bird is a mocking chicken—a small black boy making mysterious clucking noises and flapping his elbows with his hands at his collarbone, and the fearful narrator misreads it as anti-Caucasian imprecations and alpha-male menace (getting his ideas of non-white humans a little mixed up with apes, I'm afraid).

Laraine Newman as Devil Chicken in the early Saturday Night Live days. Not quite "palms to clavicles", but that takes more of a true contortionist. 
The frame, on the other hand, is explicitly from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (though "Fuck you, White Devil!" sounds so Chinese, it puts me more in mind of Lord Jim), replacing the trip up the fetid Congo with one down a metaphorical digestive tract from the esophagus of the Chicago suburbs southwest to the anus of the Missouri border, and a dyspeptic one to boot, meaning presumably that the traveler is confronted by burps making their way in the opposite direction:
I... journey Marlow-like down U.S. 55, the dyspeptic alimentary canal of Illinois, from the shadows underneath the gloomy turret of the Joliet penitentiary to the stagnation of Normal and Bloomington, across the vast stretches of lightly populated Corn Belt and through the almost-as-empty state capital at Springfield, where the only sign of life is a convention of legionnaires in their jaunty, flare-intensive garrison caps, then onward and downward toward the Mississippi until finally arriving at my terminus in East St. Louis, where instead of meeting my Kurtz I get yelled at...
Flare-intensive? Does that mean having one forces you to invest more than you otherwise would in flares, the way a labor-intensive industry makes you spend more on labor?

Vintage American Legion garrison hat, via Etsy.
In modernist fashion (think Kafka), Williamson doesn't say what Kurtz his narrator is chasing down to East St. Louis. There's a Kurtz figure in the form of Governor Pat Quinn, the unsound rogue officer who presides over all this horror, but he's in Hinsdale, at the beginning of the route; our hero is driving away from him.

But his preoccupation with Quinn is pretty intense:
If this is the Land of Lincoln, then Pat Quinn is the gubernatorial John Wilkes Booth.
I believe this means Quinn shot Illinois in the head while it was having an innocent night out.

There are a couple more encounters with the natives—some sex workers, I think he thinks, a little scandalized that they should be soliciting before ten in the morning, and a man flashing "W" signs, he thinks possibly to signal his affiliation to the West Side Gang, if East St. Louis has one. Certainly the first thing most black people do when encountering a shaven-headed white man in early middle age is to try to ascertain whether he belongs to their gang or not. But then again it might have meant Wu-Tang Clan, or White, or Microsoft Windows. You think Williamson is a Windows guy? Me too.

In the end, perhaps, he comes to understand that if Kurtz isn't in your own back yard, then you never really lost him to begin with, clicks his heels, and takes the Red Eye back to New York. Or something like that. I'll never know, because National Review wants you to pay 25 cents to get beyond the first four pages, and that's a little too penny-intensive for me. I got everything I really needed from Williamson's story already.

Drawing by Shel Silverstein, via Project Rise Music.
Yes we'll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we'll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.
Oh, and there's one really good reason for bringing up East St. Louis:

No comments:

Post a Comment