PEN International Talk – 6

  1. Humorists like details

Specificity can be hilarious. Here’s a passage from Nora Ephron’s book “I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being a Woman”:

Oh, the necks. There are chicken necks. There are turkey gobbler necks. There are elephant necks. There are necks with wattles and necks with creases that are on the verge of becoming wattles. There are scrawny necks and fat necks, loose necks, crepey necks, banded necks, wrinkled necks, stringy necks, saggy necks, flabby necks, mottled necks. There are necks that are an amazing combination of all of the above. According to my dermatologist, the neck starts to go at forty-three, and that’s that. You can put makeup on your face and concealer under your eyes and dye on your hair, you can shoot collagen and Botox and Restylane into your wrinkles and creases, but short of surgery, there’s not a damn thing you can do about a neck. The neck is a dead giveaway. Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to if it had a neck.

I love this description by Michael Chabon in his novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, when introducing his main character, detective Meyer Landsman.

He has the memory of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker. When there is crime to fight, Landsman tears around Sitka like a man with his pant leg caught on a rocket. It’s like there’s a film score playing behind him, heavy on the castanets.

Charles Portis is best known as the author of True Grit, which, I understand, he worked on while living in San Miguel. As much as I respect True Grit, the next passage is from my favorite Portis book, which is titled The Dog of the South. I bought a copy of this comic masterpiece after reading a back cover blurb by humorist Roy Blount, Jr. According to Blount: “Nobody should ever die without first reading this book.” I agree. The Dog of the South is a road story that covers Arkansas, Texas, Mexico (including San Miguel), and Central America, filled with delicious writing, quirky characters, and a broken down bus load of humor.

The narrator is Southerner Ray Midge, a slacker who studies military history, chasing after his wife, Norma, who had run off with her first husband, Guy Dupree. They took Ray’s Ford Torino and his credit card. Ray follows their journey south through the credit card receipts they leave behind. This is how Midge describes spending a night in Laredo:

“In Laredo I got a six-dollar motel room that had a lot of posted rules on the door and one rubber pillow on the bed and an oil-burning heater in the wall that had left many a salesman groggy. It was the kind of place I knew well. I always try to get a room in a cheap motel with no restaurant that is near a better motel where I can eat and drink. Norma never liked this practice. She was afraid we would be caught out in the better place and humiliated before some socialites we might have just met. The socialites would spot our room key, with a chunk of wood dangling from it like a carrot, or catch us in some gaffe, and stop talking to us. This Laredo room also had a tin shower stall and one paper bath mat.”

I think we can agree the possibility of bumping into socialites who are staying at a nearby motel in Laredo is priceless.

The next description I’d like to share is from the novel Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. The author describes the farm where Flora (“Robert Poste’s child”) goes to live after her parents die:

The farm-house was a long, low building, two-storied in parts. Other parts of it were three-storied. Edward the Sixth had originally owned it in the form of a shed in which he housed his swineherds, but he had grown tired of it, and had it rebuilt in Sussex clay. Then he pulled it down. Elizabeth had rebuilt it, with a good many chimneys in one way and another. The Charleses had let it alone; but William and Mary had pulled it down again, and George the First had rebuilt it. George the Second, however, burned it down. George the Third added another wing. George the Fourth pulled it down again.

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