the vulgarity of man: geronimo rex (barry hannah)

i don’t like blurbs or big praise actually printed on the book, or in the book as an introduction, but the NYT quote on the front cover is quite appropriate really:
“A stunning piece of entertainment … vulgar, ribald, and wildly comic.” and yes, this book has its share of vulgarity. it also contains violence and sex. if any of that makes you uncomfortable, you might want to read something else.  🙂

harriman monroe is an acute observer as well as a musician and – occasionally – a poet. the book begins with him, age 8, secretly watching the black high school band practise in 1950. the location is a small louisiana town called dream of pines, where the two major employers are a paper mill and a mattress factory.

the book is split into three parts, which could be summarized, roughly, into childhood, student life, and graduate school / work. the title of the novel makes sense along the way, when harry finds himself suddenly fascinated with geronimo and, before long, begins dressing the part, wearing a neckerchief, boots, and even a gun.

apache leader geronimo (“one who yawns”)

apart from harry, one character that keeps reappearing throughout the three parts is harley butte, “a mulatto fellow” a few years harry’s senior, who places great importance in the fact that he was born the day john phillip (de) sousa died.

early on at dream of pines harry has two buddies he spends time with, bob and earl. later on, at university, robert dove fleece and silas become his closest friends. the presence of geronimo also drops in on harry at some vital moments – he cannot be seen, but harry feels him and hears his voice.

another important character here is peter lepoyster. he begins, as a character, simply as handwriting in brown ink, the composer of explicit letters to his wife, sent from a mental hospital. fleece randomly steals the letters and reads them. when he and harry become roommates, he shares his obsession regarding the letters, and through a series of encounters both young men find out more and more about peter.

a leitmotif throughout the text is harry’s interest and disinterest in girls. it appears they can, to his adolescent mind, only be angelic or slutty – either too good for him or too degenerate. in some cases, his judgment of the same girl moves from one to the other (see: tonnie ray). his main “encounters” are ann, tonnie ray, the photograph of a revlon model, bonnie, patsy, catherine (peter’s niece) and prissy.

the idea of beauty, and of what makes beauty, is something harry’s brain is mulling over all this time, while smoking, getting drunk, playing with guns and girls, and excessively doing everything and anything a pubescent young man might do, – he might be a mess but in that mess, persistently, are concepts of art, music, poetry, ideas he holds and revises, ideas he slowly figures out, ideas that drive him into desperation. here is what i read as a crucial moment in harry’s meandering toward the other sex:

This Revlon model picture stung me to the guts. She was a skinny thing lying supine in a silk outfit, with a high-heel shoe dangling off her toe. Her face was big and just this side of weird, in her silvery Revlon eye and mouth make-up. She was lying on a pillow of sand and behind her, in twilight, was the whole Sahara desert. […] I had to have her. What kind of cruelty was this to have her photograph lying there? What did I have to do to get her? Her eyes looked as if they bragged on all she’d seen and understood. I would understand, I would learn all of Culture, if that’s what it took. Tears came out of my eyes. I would go to college and study Culture. (p.116)

he will see a girl, later on, in a pose like this, complete with the dangling of the shoe, and this is the girl he decides to marry. but many adventures lie in between. at one point, his youthful male overconfidence is badly shaken when a girl gives him an honest reaction:

“Lord! Wow! You’re so ugly! Men are so ugly, at last I see! Doesn’t it hurt to be like that? […] My lord, it looks like you’ve been wounded!” (Patsy to Harry, p.204)

but, as the novel suggests later, that perception of ugliness works both ways:

“Being absolutely honest, come on: the vagina is the ugliest, ungainliest natural creation in the known world. Perhaps when they land on Mars they might find something uglier.” (Dr.Lariat to Harry, p.366)

for the most part, harry is a bully and a user of women – he chooses “roaches” and later makes fun of them. toward the end, however, he makes his choice. prissy is child-like, sweet and pure, and he tries nothing with her before they are actually married. at times, it seems like he has mixed feelings about his wife, about her looking so very young:

In the grocery store, she didn’t look old enough to be filling up the cart with such calculation. She looked like the eldest urchin in a crowd in Rome, buttoned up in cunning little adult-like clothes. I would walk a piece away from her and see the men pass by her with looks of shamed lust. The poor bastards. I knew exactly what it was like, and forgave them completely. Prissy was so cute, the dream of a dago high school, and here she was choosing a roll of toilet paper, the expensive and scented kind that you imagined they hurled over a blossoming orchard of peaches and apples to get the smell all through the tissue. (p.348)

i am not going to go into the plot of this book. in fact, i have touched on some central points here, but there is much going on – the musical career of harley butte, the psychological mechanics of harry’s family, the mysterious doctor lariat, all the music references, the images of women and men, – if any of the above partial summary sounded interesting to you, read the whole thing.

About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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