Fool’s Gold (03/82)

  • Thousand Pieces of Gold, a novel by Ruthanne Lum McCunn (Design Enter­prises, P.O. Box 14695, San Francisco 94114, 308 pages, illustrated, $10.95; $5.95 paper; add $1 for mail order).
  • Imaginary Crimes, a novel by Sheila Bal­lantyne (Viking, 265 pages, $13.95).
  • The Weather Tomorrow, a novel by John Sacret Young (Random House, 196 pages, $11.50)
Without gold, the fact or the memory, would the West be just another American place? California schoolchildren of my generation were taught about James Marshall and Sutter’s Mill, but we were also taught that the real gold was agriculture: gleaming crops brought forth by steady work. These three books—an admirable fiction­alized biography of a woman who is buried in Grangeville, Idaho, under the name of Polly Bemis; an entrancing and unflinchingly harrowing novel about a childhood that cannot be understood as it is lived and an adulthood that cannot be credited against the pull of an incomprehensible childhood; and a first novel about day-to-day working-class time killing in a Hollywood that mocks any such thing—suggest matters are not so simple.

In Thousand Pieces of Gold, in 1871, an eighteen-year-old Chinese peasant woman named Lalu Nathoy has been taken from her family by bandits, exchanged for two bags of seed. (The bandits offered one bag; Lalu’s father, a dreamer who has ruined his family by foolhardy planting and a gamble on the weather, got the price up.) The brothel owner who has bought Lalu is about to ship her to San Francisco—to her new owner. “I have never been there,” says the madam, “but Li Ma, the woman for whom I bought you, says there is gold everywhere… gold just waiting to be picked up.” “Gold that will make me rich,” says the slave girl to herself. In San Francisco she is taken to Chinatown, stripped naked, placed on an auction block, and sold to a Chinese named Hong King, a saloon keeper in an Idaho mining town. Stripped of her name and renamed Polly, she becomes King’s whore. She can be bought and sold by anyone. But, as promised, gold is all around.

Each night, after the saloon emptied, she carefully swept up the dirt clotted with tobacco juice, cigar butts, ashes, and spittle from the rough planked floor. Then, in her own room at the back of the saloon, she panned the sweepings for the gold dust the men dropped when they dipped into their pokes to pay for their drinks and gambling… “White men mine the rich claims. Chinese mine the ones that have been worked over, Hong Kong mines the miners, and I mine Hong Kong.”

In Imaginary Crimes, in Seattle in the early 1940s, a little girl named Sonya Weiler is taken by her mother, Valery, on their annual visit to Valery’s mother in Canada. Sonya’s father, Ray, whom she worships, does not go. “Daddy has to stay here to work on the gold mine so we’ll all be rich someday,” he says. They live in a dark, cold, one-room basement apartment. It is unclear whether anyone—Valery, Sonya, or even Ray—actually believes in the gold mine; there may be a land title, or there may simply be a scam to make a contact that might lead to a deal that could end with the possibility of a title to worthless land. Nevertheless, the gold mine, or the uranium mine, or whatever it might be in a given year, is a constant in the Weilers’ lives, the imaginary locus that makes their poverty both legitimate and insane: Ray Weiler thinks it is his devotion to his family that justifies his search for wealth, but in fact it is the other way around. His dreams of grandeur and his con man’s blandishments trivialize the small, authentic pleasures his family might find, and pervert their pains: both are buried under the shower of gold due with tomorrow’s weather.

In The Weather Tomorrow, in 1971 in L.A., buddies Dennis Murphy and Rufus Blue, both in their forties and divorced, hustle jobs on road crews, as garbagemen, as Hollywood stuntmen. They drink, live in a trailer, talk up singles-apartment women for a night or two of sex. They get by well enough. The gold that in the nineteenth century a slave girl could “mine” to sustain hopes of buying her freedom (not understanding that her freedom, which she obtains only when her lover, Charlie Bemis, wins her in a poker game, is not hers to buy), that in the middle of the twentieth century can sustain and destroy a hopeful family, has here been diminished into pleasant irony. Ray Weiler begins his pursuit of illusion and a sure million with a revolutionary suit-cleaning process (displaying mysterious potions in the front of his shop, he rubs blue serge with pumice behind closed doors); for Murphy and Blue, such scheming remains at the center of their lives, but these lives have shrunk to mere bar talk.

“I am here to announce the development of the shaped fiberglass coffin. The beauty—now listen to this—the beauty of this development is its unique double function. It’s of course a resting place, streamlined comfortable enduring water-resistant, reasonable in price, available in sizes shapes colors; sequined, even, if you wish; and has a removable tongue-shaped lid for preeternity surfing.”

Not quite mere bar talk. This is Los Angeles, the subconscious of which Hollywood long ago colonized, where cab drivers regale nervous passengers with tales of imminent stardom and three-picture deals. And so a barfly picks up Murphy’s surfing-coffin spiel. “You and me, make a pile.” Of course, the barfly has his own pile in the making. “This buddy of mine’s about to put together this movie with Goldie Hawn. He’s real tight with her husband, some foreigner. It’s going to be about the service, a documentary, like—were you in the service? He wants me to play a part. I was ready to give him ten character ideas right then, but I wasn’t interested in any minor role.”

Sharing a setting in the West that gives their momentum toward gold credence, these three novels are hardly similar. They are, rather, fundamentally linked, part of a conversation of dreams through which ordinary life seeks to make itself heard, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. Once Charlie Bemis takes possession of Lalu—Polly—and sets her free (he cannot give her legal freedom; she will have to marry him for that, and, sick of any sort of ownership, she resists for twenty years), Thousand Pieces of Gold becomes a frontier narrative: a moving, plainly told story about fidelity, adversity, courage, pain, love, friendship, and loss. Such a message, along with McCunn’s clear voice and the ugly facts about slavery in the West, which are not taught in school, make Thousand Pieces of Gold an ideal book for any twelve year old, and a memorable one for anyone else: an account of the kind of strength we can hardly credit today, a narrative of what one woman did to live decently and well. The Weather To­morrow is an intentionally quiet, unspectacular book—by the end, there is neither the conversation of dreams nor the sound of ordinary life, but silence, as the failure of each cancels the other—but the writing is marred by arty constructions and dictionary words. Such devices subvert the speech of the author’s characters; it’s as if he meant either to give them a patina of class they don’t need or to distance himself from their failures. Imaginary Crimes is considerably more complex.

Sheila Ballantyne is a Berkeley writer whose first book, Norma Jean the Termite Queen, was the most successfully inventive American novel of the 1970s. The story of the near breakdown and self-rescue of a Bay Area housewife, it jumbles fantasy, dirty diapers, Chronicle crime headlines, and Egyptology into a dazzlingly coherent whole: a life is broken down and put back together. The book is heartbreaking, madly funny, and as fast on the eye as anything by Jean-Luc Godard. By contrast, Imaginary Crimes is ominously straight. The shifts in narrative point of view—from Sonya Weiler in first person, as a grown woman reconstructing a memory of herself or as a child blindly yearning to be that grown woman, to a third-person voice; not omniscient but more like an adult Sonya looking at a family photo album and dissociating herself from the pictures—are very subtle; the weight of the book is in its careful, fragile tone, and nothing is allowed to disrupt it.

When we first meet Sonya she is a small child, right on the verge of a consciousness that will allow her to feel, but not comprehend, the weight that over the next three decades will settle on her. But at five or six, things still make a certain kind of sense—she doesn’t yet know enough for them not to.

Valery rises early one morning to announce: “Get all your rubber toys together, they’re having a rubber drive. We can take a walk to the collection center.” Sonya can’t comprehend.

Her toys? Squeaky? Porky Pig? “Yes,” Valery says briskly. “We have to turn them all in.” Turn them in? “Do you want Hitler to win the war?” Valery rejoins ominously. Sonya tries, but can’t see the connection. Tearfully, she asks again as Valery sweeps all the toys into a paper bag. Valery sighs and attempts an explanation filled with allusions to melted rubber and jeep tires… Gradually Sonya understands: Porky is on the first leg of a long journey. He will undergo a transformation by heat. He will become a tire on a jeep carrying soldiers across Europe. He will be doing his part for the war effort, as Valery puts it. It seems a lot to ask of a rubber pig.

Before long Sonya begins to understand just enough about her father’s monomania, her mother’s lassitude, and the Po­temkin village of her family life for nothing to make any sense. It’s not simply a matter of specific deprivations, such as Ray Weiler secretly selling off his wife’s few possessions to finance the debt on his last scheme or raise the capital for his next one, nor of specific disasters, such as Val­ery’s death—an event that turns Sonya, still a young girl and more confused by the year, into a surrogate mother for her baby sister, a role she cannot begin to fulfill. The weight, or the fog, that defines Sonya’s sense of the world and of herself is a product of the burning clarity of Ray Weiler’s dreams of gold. Because he is a deeply seductive man, because he is loved, and because his dream is so cruelly, happily, tyrannically real, he robs every incident in the life of his family of its reality. It is not important what Sonya feels as a child, as a teenager, as a woman, because tomorrow they will all be rich and her feelings will seem meaningless. And until tomorrow they must be experienced as if they are meaningless. The two teachers who, taking an interest in Sonya, finally let natural light into the story—encouraging her attraction to music and poetry, leading her to credit her first experiences of autonomy and self-worth—give the teenager something very much like what record producer Sam Phillips thought he helped give black blues singers in Memphis in the early 1950s: “My greatest contribution was to open up an area of freedom within the artist himself… Talking about egos—these people unfortunately did not have an ego.”

There is no special pleading in Imaginary Crimes. Sonya Weiler’s life is not presented as a horror movie. Ballantyne’s purpose is to restore to Sonya’s past—to the moments out of which a child builds a self—the integrity that great dreams denied it. The point is to recover the ordinary from the tyranny of the dream, and the measure of Ballantyne’s success is that, by the end, Sonya’s life does seem ordinary, to her and to the reader. That is, you can imagine yourself having lived it, and so can she.


CAVEAT EMPTOR


Pinball, a novel by Jerry Kosinski (Ban­tam, 287 pages, $14.95; $7.95 paper). I’ve always been baffled by Kosinski’s reputation as a serious writer, but this hapless attempt to combine large doses of porn with the unmasking of a mystery rock star by a forgotten classical composer ought to make the question moot. Kosinski’s idea of raunchy dialogue is an exclamation point at the end of a sentence so syntactically stiff it belongs in the Victoria & Albert Museum; as for the countless sex scenes, I defy anybody to tell one from another.

Berkeley U.S.A., by Anne Moose (Alternative Press, P.O. Box 4798, Berkeley 94704, 214 pages, illustrated, $11.95 over­size paper). Tone-deaf oral history, centered on Telegraph Avenue—this Berkeley has no business people, no government, and (save for Peter Dale Scott, included as a Kennedy assassination researcher) no professors. The scene is covered through tokenism (the sole gay man interviewed appears back to back with the sole les­bian); worse, there’s no sense that the town even existed before it began making headlines back in 1964. Moose writes that the late Ann Smaldone, her token disabled person, “will be remembered in Berkeley for a long time to come,” but Berkeley U.S.A has no memory.

The Sixties, edited by Gerry Howard (Washington Square, 512 pages, $4.95 pa­per). “I spent ten years living through the sixties,” says Howard (as opposed to those of us who spent, presumably, two or fourteen). “I’ve spent the past six months editing this anthology.” God knows why it took so long—this collection of 27 articles and book excerpts by literary celebrities reads like nothing so much as Howard’s reading list for a course in contemporary American culture, circa 1971. Along with famous pieces easily available elsewhere (Norman Mailer’s “Superman Comes to the Supermarket”) and worthless pieces I wish were not (Morris Dickstein’s “Black Humor and History,” Albert Goldman’s “The Emergence of Rock”), there is one, and only one, surprise: an excerpt from Marshall Berman’s striking essay “Sympathy for the Devil,” here called “Faust in the ’60s.” Berman has just published a superior reworking of the theme in his All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (Simon & Schuster) —a rich and fascinating study that, it would seem, took him more than six months to come up with.


California, March 1982


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