Saturday, February 11, 2017

Too Far To Walk by John Hersey

Source of book: I own this.

First of all this: Hiroshima should be required reading for everyone, no exceptions. I intend that my kids read it, like I did, during high school. Regardless of your personal views of whether we should have used atomic weapons, it is important to understand the real life consequences to innocent civilians. I would say this is particularly crucial in an era when one of the two major political parties in the United States appears to consider the use of nuclear weapons to be acceptable. (Looking at you too, Ted “does sand glow?” Cruz…) Unlike, say, GPS guided precision munitions, the point of nukes is to slaughter civilians by the tens of thousands. We must never forget that when we talk of using them. By telling the stories of real people who lived through the blast, Hersey make the human cost palpable.

Anyway, all that to say that I very much like John Hersey. After Hiroshima, the next book I read (in my 20s, I believe) was Life Sketches, which is outstanding, and worth seeking out. Although Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories get the prize for first online review I did of a book (back on April 29, 2010, as a Facebook note), the first actual new review posted on my blog (on June 29, 2011) was Hersey’s novel, A Single Pebble



Hersey wrote in a variety of styles, both fiction and non-fiction, and this book is a complete departure from anything else of Hersey’s I have read. A Single Pebble was set in China, where Hersey grew up, and was set in an older era. Too Far To Walk is set in the modern (1960s) Ivy League, and feels very of its time in a lot of ways. But that is not to say that it has nothing universal.

I guess the best way to describe the idea of the book is that of a coming of age story combined with elements of the Faust legends. John Fist, a student at a fictitious Ivy League school, experiences ennui and boredom, and seeks to find a “breakthrough,” as he puts it. Some transcendent experience which will make him feel alive and know himself. It isn’t too hard to see why he feels this way. He has grown up in an upper middle class family which always assumed he would follow in his father’s footsteps. Dad was a man who always did what was expected, a favorite of the professors, and as square as possible. And yet, with all that promise, he ended up punching a clock in marketing at a widget company, making his paycheck, but never really having an interesting or challenging life. Mom rather wears that pants, and has invested much of her emotional energy into the kids, the elder of which was more, shall we say, compliant than John. The title of the book itself comes from the idea that John is finding it “too far to walk” to his philosophy class at the other end of the campus.

At the peak of this malaise, John is approached by Breed, another student, with a proposal. It turns out that Breed is the Mephistopheles of the story, a representative of the infernal regions. But things have changed a whole lot over the years. Sure, you still sign a contract in blood, but the contract is conditional: you can cancel if you are dissatisfied. And also, the whole thing about dragging a soul to hell after death is much too chancey. A modern contract requires you to do the devil’s work during the term of the contract instead.

And so, John Fist signs, and then waits. And waits, and hopes for his promised breakthrough. First, he goes out with Margaret, a nice “girl next door” sort. They eventually get a hotel for the night with the idea of consummating the relationship, but he is unsure how to proceed, and she falls asleep, and the whole night has the ring more of a comedy than a serious scene. John feels cheated, not by Margaret, but by Breed, who seems to be under delivering on his promise.

Next, Breed sets John up with a prostitute, Mona, who is one of the most interesting characters in the book. She has serviced a good number of the professors, and knows how they talk. She can buffalo her way through an impersonation of a college girl - or even a professor herself. On a whim, John takes her home to meet his parents, which sets up one of the most awkward and hilarious scenes in the book. The parents clearly know she is older and more experienced than she lets on (John introduces her as a student at a local junior college), yet their good manners prevent them from prying too deeply or being rude to her or John. But, awkward, awkward, awkward.

After this, Breeds sets John up for a bizarre burglary in a poor neighborhood which seems on the border between real life and a dream. In fact, one might even question if it really happened. Finally, Breed procures some LSD, and John goes on an extended trip (which takes up about a quarter of the book). This is not, shall we say, a particularly good trip. The images at first are interesting, and Hersey’s writing is, as usual, excellent. (For what it is worth, I have never had a drug stronger than Benadryl - which makes me seriously unfit to drive or function - but I can kind of sort of get the whole drug trip thing from a number of dream experiences, most of which were rather unpleasant.) It is at the end of the trip that things get really dark. John ends up at a witches’ sabbath, and kind of freaks out.

Ironically, while John never gets his “breakthrough,” he does have an epiphany of sorts. He realizes that his dream of somehow bypassing the hard work of finding his own identity and life is an illusion, and that he is just going to have to muddle through on his own.

It was kind of odd reading this book given my own personality. I am kind of a strange sort anyway, combining a natural tendency to be a square (the way my violin teacher once described me - and she is 40 years older…) and my inability to really fit the template. (Being a short and unathletic, violin playing, poetry loving, household skills expert, non-alpha male in a subculture that reveres gender stereotypes wasn’t exactly a recipe for fitting in.) On the one hand, I don’t really get John Fist’s boredom with study - I have loved most classes I have taken. But on the other, I also don’t understand his fishing for an identity. Sure, I had my insecurity and my frustration at trying to make my way in the world. But I also pretty well knew who I was. I was hopelessly square and nerdy - but I embraced it! So I guess this book was a bit of a cultural exchange.

A few lines that I really found interesting. One came in the hotel scene between Margaret and John, where they are discussing books - particularly the more racy modern literary fiction. John is made somewhat uncomfortable by Margaret’s casual - and even dismissive -  attitude toward sex in literature. Because of Hersey’s style (in this book) of writing dialogue without quotation marks and without a clear delineation between spoken words and John’s inner thoughts, I am not sure exactly if this was John’s thought or the author’s.  

She was post-liberated; she talked about these things as if they belonged to an older generation. Older people wrote those books for older people to read and throw up over. She was aware but untouched.

In some ways, hard to believe this was written 50 years ago, but so true today. I guess I really feel like a lot of the cultural panic, and the Culture Wars™ themselves are this way too. Fiction dreamed up by old people for themselves to titillate themselves over the imaginary sins of the young people, and reassure themselves that they weren’t this bad, that it really is all our fault. And meanwhile, we feel we are reading books by older people written for themselves that have little if anything to do with the world as we know it.

The other line that I really found interesting was the final exchange between Breed and John.

-- I’m not going to renew...
That short declaration drove the scorn from Breed’s face and voice, and now he spoke softly, solicitously:
-- Why not?
-- Because I can’t go on living in a world that’s on a knife-edge between hallucination and objective truth.
-- Sentimentality can never be truth.
-- Who said I wanted sentimentality?
-- That lousy experience you dreamed up yesterday with Margaret…
-- But that wasn’t an experience; you just said it yourself - that I dreamed it up. You haven’t given me experiences. I can’t live with frenzy, visions, stupor, hangovers - and finally a tremor, a dragging foot as I walk. You sold me a bill of goods. You sold me illusions. I prefer the real world, crummy as it is.
-- Who’s to say what’s real? Do you know what’s real?
-- I don’t know for sure, but I think reality has something to do with friction - in all senses - between human beings, and what you put me through a series of flights into myself, away from other people, the opposite of that friction.

In our own era of “alternative facts” and a denial of the humanity of others outside the tribe, there is a lot of truth in this. Reality requires that friction, that contact and empathy with other humans, that is a far cry from hallucination and slogans and the bill of goods promised.

Ultimately, Hersey’s resolution is uncomfortable, but satisfying. No, it isn’t too far to walk. We must take that walk, to learn, to explore, to be outside our tribe and comfort zone, if we are to grow. It will require discomfort, effort, and hard work to become.

***

Reading and writing about a Witches’ Sabbath brought to mind two works of music. (Big surprise there, right?)

To any young orchestral musician, Modest Mussorgsky’s Night On Bald Mountain is intimately familiar. But the end of high school, I had played this a couple of times. The familiar version is the one rewritten and orchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. (I have read through a more “authentic” version, and there is a reason that most of Mussorgsky's best known works were completed by other composers - he was just too undisciplined to polish works.)

Of all the times I have played this, my favorite was the concert I played while at Bakersfield College when we did a Halloween themed concert. In addition to this piece, we played Charles Ives’ Halloween, Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre (I got to play the detuned violin solo - good times), and Rachmaninoff's Isle of the Dead, which remains one of my all time favorite works.

In the familiar version, the Witches’ Sabbath reaches its frenzy when the sound of a church bell announces dawn, and the sun begins its creep over the horizon, and the orgy breaks up with everyone slinking off, as marvelously described in solos by the clarinet and flute.



Even more apropos to this review, however, is the final movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. I believe I have linked the fourth movement (which includes what may be the only known musical depiction of a decapitated head plopping into a basket), but I don’t believe I have ever linked the finale.

Symphonie Fantastique is perhaps the first musical work known to have been inspired by a drug trip - and thus the first psychedelic work. (Although I strongly suspect alcohol of being involved in more than a few compositions…) Of course, back then, they didn’t have LSD - only opium.

So, according to Berlioz, the symphony tells the story of a man obsessed with his beloved. Hey, maybe like Berlioz himself was obsessed with soprano Harriet Smithson. Anyway, in despair at his unrequited love, he overdoses on opium, but survives after having a crazy drug trip about her. He finds her everywhere, from a ball to the idyllic fields of nature. However, things get dark. He kills her, is marched to the scaffold and is shortened by the guillotine. In the finale, he finds himself in hell at a witches’ sabbath, and she is the head witch. The theme that represents her becomes grotesque and is mixed with the medieval chant of Dies Irae (the Day of Wrath, which is used in many a classical work - learn it and listen for it…) The great love has turned to terror and evil. This whole scene isn’t that far off from that of John Fist’s LSD trip, which is why I thought of this rather immediately.

I also must quote the great Leonard Bernstein on Symphonie Fantastique:

“Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral."

And here is Bernstein with the finale:


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