--- J A C K S M I T H
Most of the stories in Dennis Must's provocative first collection deal with characters from small towns in Pennsylvania--Hebron or Niles--factory towns, with pottery plants and bronze factories. These stories interlock to create a larger narrative about working class people, whose lives are defined by the typical conflicts which shape most people's lives: marital conflicts, conflicts between relatives, inner conflicts over personal happiness and success, and struggles to understand the mysterious nature of life and death.
The first story in this collection sets the tone for much of what follows. In “Escape,” Westley Daugherty, through his father's urging, heads off for college instead of remaining in Hebron, Pennsylvania, to become a potter like his father--breaking a family tradition of two generations. Four years later, with his philosophy degree in hand, Westley is accompanied by his father on a long trek to Harvard to be interviewed before being admitted to Divinity School. Westley's roots clearly do not prepare him for the stuffy, academic focus of the Harvard Divinity School. He is considered a Holy Roller by these “scholarly swells,” and though his pride is hurt, he is quite happy to leave Cambridge with its upper-class interests and return to Hebron and the bosom of his father--a crude man, indeed, but one who clearly wishes not to be “erased” by Wesley's “expunging” of his past. The return from Cambridge to Hebron becomes an archetypal journey in which the father and the son meet on a new personal basis--beyond class interests--to explore the common threads of their basic humanity. Must's adept handling of character and event--especially the snow storm which impedes progress home and encourages the bonding of father and son--makes this story a remarkable opening to his collection.
Nine out of the sixteen stories in this collection deal with Westley Daugherty, a character who performs the overall function of tying the collection together. In a particularly compelling story, “Horace,” Aunt Evelyn, Westley's favorite aunt, introduces Westley to Horace, an idiot savant who can recall, on command, innumerable details from history. Young Westley, we learn, is the right type to appreciate such a man because he himself has a scholarly turn of mind--and would not be startled by Horace's “belly-button ear.” Aunt Evelyn, a woman who suffers from a disease that results in constant vibrating of hands, arm, and head, soon dies. Her death makes Westley realize the tenuous nature of human existence. And all the more so because her life seems so small, so restricted, given the fact that her husband, a crude man who drives an ice cream truck, subjects her to his sexual desires each day at noon and in the waning evening light on their “semen-encrusted, umber wool sofa” in the living room--routine episodes which become the subject of his amusement and merriment, and “dirty stories” for Westley.
In the title story, “Banjo Grease,” Westley makes a trip to visit his Uncle George and Aunt Min. Uncle George (also graphic in his details about sex) once told Westley, Westley's father, and his brother, James, about mistaking banjo grease for Vaseline when preparing to make “pouchy pie”--and how he and Aunt Min had then tried to put the “fire” out. This playful character has a habit of grabbing Westley's arm, kneading the flesh with his fingers, then suddenly inquiring: “Do you give up?” It's Aunt Min, though--Aunt Min, who on her visits to Westley's home in Hebron, made such wonderful stacks of pancakes with such wonderful maple syrup--that initially causes Westley to make the trip to visit them on the outskirts of Niles. They occupy a modest aluminum trailer at the drive-in theater, where they are grounds keepers. This story, like so many of the stories in the collection, presents a marvelous rite of passage in which Westley is disillusioned by Aunt Min's response to his visit (“Her mouth--all misshapen and contorted . . . .”) and enamored by Uncle George's interest in their building together a new, strong friendship--even in the midst of the jealousy of Min, who thinks Westley is robbing her of her own time with her husband. What's so striking about this story, like the other stories in the collection, is Dennis Must's ability to define character through dialect, incident, and individualizing trait or gesture. The reader leaves this story with a memorable picture of that drive-in theater--certainly a rich piece of Americana--with the littering of “rubber jimmies and the panties they throw out the windows.”
Several other stories are set in Hebron or Niles, but from other points of view. Two stories deal with Buddy Hart, young jazz musician/blues singer, who has a chance to get out of East Niles--and who grabs the opportunity. In “Say Hello to Stanley,” he marries into wealth, but loses out in the end when he tires of his wealthy, effete wife, begins drinking heavily, and wishes to return to the earthy milieu of East Niles and the blues club where he was so popular--such a spectacular draw. In an odd turn of events, his wife, in a fit of anger and revenge, cuts off the one finger that would allow him to return to playing his Hammond B-3. In “Oh, Josephine,” Buddy Hart also intends to leave East Niles, has a woman from Sandusky in line, gets circumcised to move up a notch in the social scale (ridding himself of the stigma of “East Jesus”)--but then undergoes great, unexpected pain. The fate of Buddy Hart in his movement out of Niles into a classier life elsewhere isn't all too certain. Class is a marker. How does one escape something integral to his whole being?
Of the stories set outside Hebron or Niles, perhaps the most intriguing is “Big Whitey.” Here, Cyrus Quinn, a philosophy major who's looking for work, must write an essay as part of Bell Telephone's extensive job application process. During this process, Quinn meets a man who, without apparent provocation, becomes bent on Quinn's destruction. Quinn immediately flees the Bell premises after writing the essay and then imagines he's escaped, for good, in the anonymity provided by his White Castle job, yet he mysteriously re-encounters this miscreant early one morning at a White Castle restaurant. Quinn is as incapable as Axel Heyst of Conrad's Victory to escape the dark, absurd forces.
Overall, the stories in this volume reflect Dennis Must's ability to zero in on what's typical in the lives of characters in small-town, working class Pennsylvania. But the collection isn't limited to one class or milieu. Must's vision escapes regionalism to depict what's centered in the human heart--and what the appropriate response might be. As a first collection, it is a mighty flood of felt experience, of the internal as well as external forces playing on the human mind, heart, and soul.
© crossconnect 1995-2000
published in association with the |
university of pennsylvania's kelly writers house |