The Mimic’s Own Voice by Tom Williams
Main Street Rag, 97 pages, $9.95
This is a difficult book to write about because it’s so commandingly impressive. The writing is tight, expository, and emerges more from the school of “tell” than the school of “show.” I’m reminded most of Steven Milhauser’s story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” and novel Edwin Mullhouse. There is a narrator, but we are never sure who, or why, s/he is recounting the life and death of Williams’s protagonist, Douglas Myles, a mimic so good at replicating others’ voices he can even replicate voices he hasn’t heard — just by looking at the person. But how? How exactly does he do it? Questions like these seem the occasion for the academically toned narrative, which includes passages like:
Myles’s manuscript, housed now at The Pratt-Falls Center, Dr. Greene’s home institution, excited laymen and scholars at first, for all suspected it had been written for publication. Yet no contract exists among Myles’s papers (and, as the readers shall see, he was quite the saver), nor can one be found in the files of any publishers. This increased speculation that a bidding war for its rights would take place, though after the manuscript’s seventy-three handwritten pages were initially read, no offers, save for the Pratt-Falls’s were forthcoming. From its curious usage of second person, to its enigmatic opening and closing lines, ‘Your name is Douglas Myles. . . . They never really listened,” it does not divulge entirely his secrets, while it raises mysteries all its own. Still, there are a host of details which offer, for the first time, a definitive glimpse into his early life.
Subtle touches like “Pratt-Falls Center” make this novella an even more engaging read. The book is loaded with hidden gems like the detailed history of a richly imagined golden era of comics and Comedic Studies scholars, wherein a line like this rings true: “In her most formative study on the vernacular storytellers, Yokels, Yahoos and Just Plain Folks, the grand-dame of Comedic Studies, L.P. Chance, herself the graddaughter of ‘Lucky’ Chance, the ‘king of the zingers,’ tells the story of how Hezekiah ‘Uncle Ike’ Stanley, master of the farm to town narrative, clipped every positive review and stuffed them in a pillowcase he clutched at his side in bed.”
In this novella also exists social critics; the mysterious manuscript mentioned above (written in an oddly close-feeling yet distanced second person); a performance venue called The Hub, which “was as avant-garde as a middle-sized city in the Buckeye State could get,” and another venue called Either/Or, “where guitar and accordion punk combos performed side by side with latex lingerie shows.”
As Myles’s career prospects grow, as he makes his way toward top billing and to sold-out football stadiums, he remains the same man he’s always been — a complicatedly uncomplicated character. He is gentle, unassuming, and spends most of his time in this book either on stage, in the hearts and minds of others (colleagues, critics, fans), or giving his money to charity. A reviewer for Outsider Writers Collective observes:
Myles, for the most part [. . .] plays the idiot savant trope to a degree that steals much of the potential relatability. He may simply be too good, too likable. He is quiet, reserved, and infinitely humble, qualities that his comic brethren/competitors criticize constantly throughout the story, which forces these qualities to remain top-of-mind for the reader. We never see him angry. We never see him vengeful. But I suppose, who, if not a profession mimic, could at least feign contention so convincingly?
In the end, after watching this comedic genius rise to glory and then fall to earth (star that he was), I come away with a few different reactions: (1) awe and nostalgia for prose as strong and commanding as this; (2) sadness for this character, who ultimately misses his family, which is the beginning and end of his career; (3) interest in how this book’s narrative tone manages such a delicate balance between confession/personal revelation and dry, unemotional distance (perhaps helped by its mimicry of academic writing, so often focused on that holy trifecta of race, gender, and class).
There is so much to admire about this novella, about the writer behind it. I hope to read much more of Tom Williams in the years to come, and I am grateful that I was lucky enough to receive a copy of The Mimic’s Own Voice to read and enjoy, which I did, enthralled and thoroughly.