Having just reread William Gass’s “The Pedersen Kid” yesterday morning, I decided to do a study of associations–what my brain does as I read, what I think of, what I take away–though right there I sally and this Heraclitus quote, used as an epigraph in W.S. Merwin’s The Lice, drips back into my consciousness:
All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice: they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”
Is this nugget saying that which we can’t understand stays with us? Maybe. But more and more I take with me what is mysterious. The trove of Wallace Stevens poems that I’ve examined recently has somewhat sunk into me as what I write now leaks his influence. But really the conglomerate of Gass/Gaddis/Rilke/Stevens via John Madera has been instrumental in boosting the language quotient and destroying a quasi-plain style I took on after a few months with Lydia Davis. So lines or formations like, “She wouldn’t let him do what he wanted to do and this frustrated him,” become “There is a way you carry yourself, he said, quickly breaking off because evening drew on, evening and everything evening measures. Our pace, the space between canyons, this leaf living in the book on the chair.”
While reading Gass’s novella I kept wondering why no one had made a movie of it. There is snappy dialogue, the exteriors are land swamped in snow, the violence, the quest-like nature of Jorge, Pa, and Big Hans going to the Pedersen’s to see if the family was dead, to see why the Pedersen kid had shown up on their doorstep, half-dead. For some reason I think Steven Soderbergh suited to this, mainly because with his commercial heft, he could convince financiers to back something that doesn’t have a concrete ending and that is broken up with Jorge’s flights of fancy.
Before there was Mametspeak there was Pinterspeak and, contemporaneous with Pinterspeak, William Gass wrote some of the best dialogue in American fiction. Here is Jorge going up to Pa’s room in the first pages of the novella with Pa speaking first:
Get the hell out of here.
Big Hans sent me. He told me to wake you.
A fat turd to Big Hans. Get out of here.
He found the Pedersen kid by the crib.
Get the hell out.
Jorge continues to try and tell Pa about the Pedersen kid but the father equivocates, thinking the father Pedersen is in the house, then Jorge says:
You don’t understand, Pa. The Pedersen kid. The kid–
I shittin well understand.
Pa had his head up, glaring, his teeth gnawing at the place where he’d grown a mustache once.
I shittin well understand. You know I don’t want to see Pedersen. That cock. Why should I? That fairy farmer. What did he come for, hey? God dammit, get. And don’t come back. Find out some shittin something. You’re a fool. Both you and Hans. Pedersen. That cock. That fairy farmer. Don’t come back. Out. Shit. Out. Out out.
He was shouting and breathing hard and closing his fist on the pillow. He had long black hairs on his wrist. They curled around the cuff of his nightshirt.
Big Hans made me come. Big Hans said–
A fat turd to Big Hans. He’s an even bigger turd than you. Fat, too, fool, hey? I taught him, dammit, and I’ll teach you. Out. You want me to drop my pot?
That is the chamber pot, by the way. “A fat turd to Big Hans,” is more the language of presentation, gift-giving. “Find out some shittin something,” is a shit-storm of s’s (along with the repetition of ‘some’), as well as the third ‘shittin’ in a few sentences of dialogue. It’s awful for a father to talk to his son this way, but it’s presented artfully and entertainingly in the American idiom.
As for description at the right moment in the story–have there ever been wrist hairs as scary as those on Pa?
The quest against the elements has a rich tradition in American books and films. A few examples being most of Cormac McCarthy’s western novels and The Road, as well as Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams where three men go slaughtering buffalo for hides in the Rockies only to lose their sense of time in their greed to get as many hides as possible (more money) and they get taken over by snow.
Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller ends in a snowy shootout (begins at 2:33):
Kubricks’s The Shining climaxes in the maze full of snow:
I’m not forgetting Fargo–but I wanted to make a special mention of Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter. He might be a better snow director than Soderbergh. In the film a school bus crash occurs in the Adirondacks, sending a small community into turmoil after many children die. The film flashbacks and forward in time and the crash is not shown until forty some minutes into the film. Egoyan has spoken of his looking at Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow from 1565 when composing the second image below. (There is no good footage of this scene on-line but it’s much better to see it in the course of the film–if you do, notice how Egoyan leaves out the “money” shot of the bus going down the hill–the only shot of it sinking into the ice is from the distant POV in the second image):
Andrei Tarkovsky also used this painting as the basis for a shot in his 1974 film Mirror:
And he let his camera glide over the actual painting in Solaris in a startling meditation on the details of this chilly scene :
“One must have a mind of winter,” the first line of Stevens’s poem “The Snow Man” is a mantra I’ve been chanting for the last few weeks. Apt for a story where the killer of the Pedersen family is imagined as a snow man by Jorge.
In terms of influence, Stevens’s book of poetry, Harmonium (which includes “The Snow Man”, is one of Gass’s Fifty Literary Pillars. On the twelfth page of “The Pedersen Kid,” there is this sentence: “It was spotted with whiskey and flecks of flour.” Fleck, fleck, fleck fleck. There was that word again. I knew Stevens had used it and queried in the on-line concordance to his poetry for the term (fleck by itself was used once, flecks crashes the page).
|The Auroras of Autumn|
|line 23 (i.23):||Black beaded on the rock, the flecked animal,|
|This Solitude of Cataracts|
|line 1:||He never felt twice the same about the flecked river,|
|Metaphor as Degeneration|
|line 17:||That is the flock-flecked river, the water,|
Fleck is a spot or mark, a flake or particle. As these works are flecked with fleck, so my mind is flecked with lines and traces, images and ideas that continue to power up the more the art saturates it. The process seems unending–given that the supply is endless. The more one reads or looks at art, the more fractures open inside consciousness.
In nine years these seven people were born:
Gertrude Stein 1874
Carl Jung 1875
Rainer Maria Rilke 1875
Wallace Stevens 1879
Pablo Picasso 1881
Virginia Woolf 1882
James Joyce 1882
Joyce and Woolf were born eight days apart. They both died in 1941, Woolf lived two months longer.
It’s been said before, but I’d like to reiterate that Nick Ripatrazone’s article in the Quarterly Conversation, Let Me Make a Snowman: John Gardner, William Gass and “The Pedersen Kid” is a wonderful supplement to the story and a great primer on the differing views on fiction and ways of composition that Gardner and Gass took as they debated one another in public (Gardner saying Gass and writers like him favored style and technique over character development). Gardner also first published “The Pedersen Kid” in his journal MSS.
At the end of their debate at the 1978 Cincinnati Fiction Festival Gardner said, “…what I think is beautiful, he would not yet think is sufficiently ornate. The difference is that my 707 will fly and his is too encrusted with gold to get off the ground,” to which Gass replied, “There is always that danger. But what I really want is to have it sit there solid as a rock and have everybody think it is flying.” (italics mine)