This is Parlando Project alternate reader Dave Moore’s birthday month, and so I thought it’d be a good time to interrupt the autumn poetry with his presentation of a short passage from detective novelist Ross MacDonald’s The Galton Case first published in 1959.
Dave did this live performance that I recorded a few years back, and when I asked him earlier this fall about it, he wasn’t sure exactly what went into its choice. It may have been that some of the formative influences on the Parlando Project date to the era depicted in this scene in the novel, the “Beatnik*” phase where a certain kind of post WWII bohemia reached general public attention.
I’d characterize most of that general attention then as somewhere between comic amusement and pearl-clutching concern. The “beatnik” as a comic character became a stock item, and it’s easy to see the derivation from earlier foolish artist characters like Don Marquis’ Fothergil Finch.** The world doesn’t understand their pure art, but in the comic context, the world is entirely right. And then the concern-faction folks were writing that standards were surely slipping as free verse, free jazz, free-style prose myths, and free love were celebrated in the demimonde.
Explosive ivory towers! The Beatnik id of the Fifties.
Fiction writers, even writers of detective fiction, have the choice of walking fine-borderlines on such things. Characters and voices can hit the comic notes, show the raggedness of the coloring outside the lines and the amputations when sharp lines cut, while allowing their readers the ability to vicariously experience those parts of town they would never visit. Attracted to the Beat but find it out of reach? Repelled by it? Find it phony? It’s possible to write a novel and hold the interest of readers who have one or more of those opinions of “Beatniks.”
This passage from Ross MacDonald is a good example. I’ve not read the book, I don’t know how it comes out, and what additional framing and information we might have if we did. Listening to the section Dave reads I wonder: does the narrator dislike the modern jazz playing behind the poet, or just dislike its incarnation that night? Is the poet reading to music a beatnik fool speaking useless nonsense, or a fool speaking the truth because they no longer care not to? What level of imposture is everyone portraying, and how can we know or find out?
We don’t know. We’ll turn pages so the detective can find out.
It occurs to me that detective fiction is allied on some essential level with literary criticism. Sherlock Holmes foretold the New Criticism; Edgar Allen Poe, one of the Fugitives before their time.
If last time Emily Dickinson was getting meta with autumn and poets who wrote about autumn, today we have Dave reading in front of the LYL Band this short, mysterious passage from The Galton Case which describes—someone reading before a band.
Happy birthday Dave! The player is below…
*Beatnik was created by newspaper columnist Herb Caen who combined the term “Beat” used by some writers in the scene with the Russian suffix used for the tiny artificial earth satellite Sputnik launched in 1957. Many members of the “beat generation” didn’t like the term, which after all was a diminutive. People breaking molds don’t generally like labels anyway.
The successor term “Hippie” was similarly made by adding a diminutive suffix to an existing term “hip” that was used within the subculture. Both Hippie and Beatnik had connotations of a vague aspiration to bohemianism, particularly by those who might be too young to really understand.
**”The Poet of Revolt” as he self-branded. Furthermore in Marquis’ Hermoine and Her Little Group of Serious Thinkers from 1916, we can find other characters like Voke Easeley the Modernist composer who “Doesn’t know a thing about music. He tried for years to learn and couldn’t. The only way he knows when you strike a chord on the piano is because he doesn’t like chords near as well as he does discords.”