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Notes on reading David Foster Wallace’s short story “John Billy”
Posted By Daniel Silliman On April 8, 2011 @ 11:17 am In Fiction | No Comments
1. “John Billy,” which begins, “Was me supposed to tell Simple Ranger how Chuck Nunn Junior done wronged the man that wronged him and fleen to parts unguessed,” and is the fifth of 10 stories that appear in Girl with Curious Hair, strikes me as starkly different from most of Wallace’s work. This is, for example, one of the very few of his short stories that feature or is focused on lower class characters. There is also the tailor in the story “Say Never,” in Girl with Curious Hair, and the last piece in Oblivion involves some poor Midwesterners, though it’s not about them, and there are some stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men where, it seems to me, it’s ambiguous. But, for the most part, Wallace’s world is made up of well-educated, gainfully employed, could-go-to-therapy-if-they-wanted, upper middle class whites. There is no one in his short stories who mows the lawn, or stocks shelves at Wal-Mart, or drives a truck for a living. There is no one who would appear in a Raymond Carver story or in the worlds Cormac McCarthy writes about, but “John Billy” is an exception to that, and this story actually could have been told (differently, obviously) by either of them. From the moment it opens, “John Billy” is dramatically different.
2. In his later work, Wallace is primarily interested in ethics — human relationships, solipsism, sadness, etc. — and some of that comes through in Girl with Curious Hair, but in this story he seems primarily interested in language. “John Billy” most clearly owes a debt to McCarthy, who Wallace praised a number of times and in a number of places, my favorite being the three word recommendation/review of Blood Meridian that reads, in entirety, “Don’t even ask.” In an interview somewhere Wallace said he didn’t know how McCarthy “gets away with it,” and that’s the part of McCarthy’s project that Wallace focuses on here: how to make the anachronistical and anarchic, mythical, biblical, dirt poor, ungrammatical, spoken language work.
Some of it works and works amazingly well, like:
And was me told the table how except for the eyes, the jaw, and the pelvis, which to our community relief all healed up, prime face, in just weeks, leaving good luck bad luck Chuck Junior a sharper shot, wickeder dancer, nearer to handsome than before, how except for that, the major impact and damage from the accident had turned out to be to Nunn’s head, mind and sensibility. How right there in the post-accidental car he suddenly got conscious but evil …
Now the buzzards outside the Outside Minogue Oklahoma Bar was down, sitting row on straight and orderly row on the edge-of-Minogue land stretching off toward dirt. Appeared to us through the window like fat bad clerics, soft and plump, teetery, red-eyed, wrapped up tight in soft black coats of ecumenism and observation. Had orange beaks and claws.
Was a good thousand orange beaks out there. Double on the claws. Lined up.
But other attempts seem to me to still be too far away and condescending, informed more by Deliverance than by any actual contact with poor whites. More bad joke than interesting use of language. An example is the title character’s use of the phrase “interjaculated,” for “interjected,” which is funny, but in a snobby, snickering way. It has the same attitude as The Jerry Springer Show.
And Wallace is really better than that.
3. There also, curiously, some sentences with cadences that could fit into a Bob Dylan song. The names all seem like something from Dylan — T. Rex Minogue, Glory Joy duBoise, Simple Ranger — and there are passages that could be narrated in his nasal, for example:
T. Rex Minogue was asking us to drink to his death.
We passed the jars around and unscrewed Minogue’s bootleg lids.
We was silent at our table, expected T. Rex dead, or at least twisted, traumatized, Nunn-struck.
“Hi,” he said.
4. Which — 2) & 3) — is not say this piece is in any way derivative or merely imitative. What is exciting here for me is precisely the way Wallace is experimenting and pushing himself and trying to use language with which he is unfamiliar. There are some parts of this, too, that are very traditional. For example, “John Billy” is told as a story being told, a style that goes back to Chaucer, was used by Conrad, and wasn’t, in 1989, experimental. But Wallace finds ways within this form to experiment and does a number of things that seem to me to be original. For one, it’s narrated as a story told to us about a story told about a story, which makes the traditional style more complicated, and, for two, Wallace starts introducing prosodic elements like line breaks into the prose narrative, which I’ve never seen anywhere else in fiction.
How right there in the post-accidental car he suddenly got conscious but evil,
“evil,” I emphasized, and there was shudders from civilians and Glory Joy,
and how a evil Chuck Nunn Junior fought and cussed and struggled against his spinal restraints, invected against everything from Prime Mobile to OU Norman’s head football coach Mr. Barry B. Switzer hisself; how even slickered in blood, and eyes hanging ominous half out of their holes, Nunn’d laid out two paramedics and a deputy and shined up my personal chin when we tried to ease him into an ambulance …
Or, the same thing with stranger punctuation:
She told how Nunn come more or less to, in his little wrap-around car, his torch-lit busted eyes in blood like bearings in deep oil;
“Remember the eyes of Nunn,” I interjaculated, and Simple Ranger give me a watching look
; and as Glory Joy finished up communicating anger and justicelessness she felt, upon seeing T. Rex’s brother V.V. Minogue, listing far to port up against the largely unharmed cab of his IH liquor truck, weepy, shitfaced, scratchless …
5. Stylistically, there’s something constant in Wallace’s work, which can be found in his non-fiction and fiction pieces, which can be found here too, even when Wallace is writing in a voice that isn’t the one that comes to him most naturally. I don’t know exactly what it is called but it is a hyper-accurate, very technical language. The sense, which Wallace conveys with this almost-sometimes-stilted voice, is of someone struggling to express what’s hard to express, what’s delicate, struggling to do justice to the complication — a very careful, cautious, circuitous way of speaking (common in therapy and the best of continental philosophy), which is sometimes criticized as obfuscationism but is, in fact, normally an attempt to be ethical verbally, to be fair to that which is not simple.
To me it seems like it’s the texture of Wallace’s writing, but while this texture is vital to the kinds of questions Wallace asks in Oblivion‘s “Mister Squishy,” or Brief Interview with Hideous Men‘s “The Depressed Person,” it didn’t have to happen here, in “John Billy,” which points to this being something essential about Wallace and the way he writes.
He has this ethico-linguistic texture, here, with his use of,
– coordinating modifiers (“at an ominous and coincidental point in time”)
– compound nouns and modifiers (“a climactic and eternal chase-down-the-field and catch-from-behind” and “the runner-plus-interference problem,” respectively)
– extended and sometimes doubled non-defining relative clauses (“V.V., stepped in post-explosion guilt and self-loathing, plus not a little eau d’sweet potato, was speeding away”)
– very specific, technical or speciality-specific vocabulary (“near-gerunds confrontation,” “vis a vis,” “institutional-caring facility”)
– irregularly-used works, such as brand names as verbs (“to arrive and gawk and Kodak”)
all of which express the kind of carefulness that emerges later, when Wallace returns to fiction, as explicitly ethical, and shows, even this early, the impulse towards writing as a kind of ethics.
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