Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Hitching to Reality -- Story #1

STORY: "Death in the Desert" by James Agee


BASICALLY: First published in 1930, this is the story of a hitchhiker with a painful boil in his ear, what happens when a car he is in passes a black man abandoned in the desert, and how the hitchhiker tries to justify not saying anything about it.

James Agee is one of my favorite authors ever. I own a shelf-and-a-half of books by and about him, I’ve read all of his major works—Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, The Morning Watch—and many of his minor ones, but until today I had never read either of the two short stories contained in The Collected Short Prose. Agee was an absolute genius of a writer, with an almost Dostevskyan ability to get inside the heads of his characters; an ability to render bit-part characters as three-dimensional, living, breathing, real people with real pasts (an ability that could have made Betty Smith proud); and an ability to capture the tone and the weirdness of this world’s silence and light and human awkwardness that is just about unparalleled.

Still, he wasn’t the most imaginative writer—the guy didn’t do fanciful plots or really anything at all that wasn’t completely grounded in his own life’s experiences—and the story I just read, “Death in the Desert,” is definitely another example of this, based as it is in a seven-week hitchhiking trip he took not long before writing it. (According to Genevieve Moreau’s The Restless Journey of James Agee.)

Written when Agee was only twenty years old—a fact that does not exactly make me feel anything at all approaching “good”—“Death in the Desert” was first published in 1930 in The Harvard Advocate, his then-college’s literary magazine.

The story surprised me, because not only is it by one of my very favorite authors, it happens to be set in and around St. Johns, Arizona, on a highway I’ve hitchhiked myself many times, back when I was living alone in a trailer in the desert about forty miles from there, working on a screenplay. I could visualize the story with added ease because of that—that barren almost-South-Dakota-badland-like stretch of not-rolling-enough desert emptiness, cut only by the two-lane highway and by monstrous crackling powerlines.... Anyway.

The story is narrated in a first-person voice that anyone at all familiar with James Agee could tell you is James Agee, and when it begins, it seems as if it might ultimately be something of a funny tale, of a hitchhiker and his humorous “SORE EAR / PLEASE” sign. Set in the late-1920s, during the start of an unmentioned Depression, the story begins with our unnamed protagonist buying food and cigarettes in St. Johns, Arizona, waiting for a ride east through a particularly foreboding 140-mile stretch of desert, waiting with a long, straggling crowd of hoboes and drifters. The protagonist is just a college kid out chasing experience, but here he encounters real travelers, travelers in need who are travelers indeed, people out on the road because they have no place else to go, like one man who stays with family during the winter but isn’t allowed to be seen around during the warmer months—a man anxious about getting rides too quickly, because he keeps finding himself in St. Louis again, where he fears his presence might displease his daughter.

As the main character waits, and after he gets picked up by a casually obnoxious married couple from Oklahoma, a boil inside his ear is just killing him; he sits next to the couple’s sleeping ten-year-old son, and when the car hits a bump, he feels “as if I’d torn half my brain out....” The whole thing feels completely real, and I have little doubt that it reads a lot like it actually happened. This is fiction that could probably get away with being labeled nonfiction, a short story that could be called an essay.

To pass the time, and to forget the pain in his ear, the narrator talks with the somewhat oafish couple, imagines them as living skeletons, and recounts his memories of growing up in Tennessee, of seeing two snakes fight in a holler and one snake kill the other, of a glen full of ferns that will one day become fossils. I’m still not sure what all that’s meant to symbolize.

And then, the event happens. The passengers of the car see a black man, ecstatic and desperate for them to stop—he’s in the middle of the long desert stretch and he needs them to stop and he’s wild for them and can’t stop saying “God Bless You” and running after them, and the driver of the car just speeds on past.

It was thus as we passed: The nigger’s laughter and weeping still alive on his face, as a machine still runs when the power is cut off; the laughter and the weeping frozen in a mask and gone; then only an astounded blackness and marbled eyes and a bestial burnt stalk of a tongue; and then, as suddenly, he was moving again and letting out wheezing yells, pleading still and still demanding that God bless us; he was running after us, desperately running after us with both arms hooked and waving in the crisping air.

So here’s this guy, this nineteen-year-old kid, who goes out in search of Emersonian “experience,” and what he gets is reality—the Great Depression, killer heat, people doing the same thing he’s doing but not for college-boy fun but because they don’t know what else to do, where else to go, they have nothing—and then this, this undeniable confrontation with this unspeakable happening that forces him to confront not only the worst of another human, the driver—the wife at least said something about stopping—but also the possible death of another human being, and the worst of himself, for not saying anything and why?!, because his ear hurt.

The critic Clive James wrote about this story in As of This Writing: The Essential Essays, 1968-2002, writing that, “Agee is making the subtle point that we are likely to treat ourselves as a special case when we are in pain, and defer our duties on the assumption that the Fates, or our better selves, will understand.”

And this is exactly what happens here. Decades later, comedian Mitch Hedburg would joke that, “Sometimes in the middle of the night, I think of something that's funny, then I go get a pen and I write it down. Or if the pen's too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain't funny.” Here, Agee’s character thinks of something horrible, of something he was part of, but then has to convince himself that what he was part of wasn’t so horrible after all.

It’s a futile task, and not at all convincing, but it certainly made me squirm reading his attempt. Sure, someone else will pick him up on that lonely highway. Sure, they might have thrown you out. Sure, it wasn’t your place, there on their charity, to even say anything. And your ear really is hurting, so.... James Lowe’s The Creative Process of James Agee, which devotes an entire chapter to this and another early story of Agee’s, points out that even in that first description of the man in the desert, “the narrator is already dismissing the man as ‘bestial...” and the dehumanizing, justifying descriptions only pile up from there.

I can’t emphasize just how well this story is written. It makes me just sick that he wrote it at age twenty—seriously. It slips into and out of stream-of-consciousness thought, rambles through memories and daydreams, stands stark and unsentimental in its realism, expertly explores how fear and pain shut down reason and guilt and kindness, and contains numerous deft meta-meditations on the fallibility and inadequacy of memory, of ourselves, our best intentions, our excuses. There is so much here, and so much to learn from it. Already, I want to read it again.


Anonymous said...

Your interpretation sucks.

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