Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Cudgel of Funny Ha-ha - #38

STORY: "Promisekeepers" by Brian Evenson


BASICALLY: None of the promisekeeping literature they've had Xeroxed specifically prohibits beer, so a bunch of religious good ol' boys meet in a bar at happy hour and get just plastered enough to unburden themselves manfully to one another. And then a little more plastered, and a little more. Certain secrets emerge. A story that starts out with laughter, moves quickly toward mockery, and then plunges suddenly into a tasteless (if still darkly humorous) ending.

Here's another story we can blame on Christa and her Metafilter thread of awesomeness. I had never heard of Brian Evenson before, but I can't wait to read more of him. "Promisekeepers" is the kind of story you can imagine playing well at a reading—the characters are earnest and ridiculous, there are lots of lines fairly seething with irony, and the ending marches up and smacks you across the face with one part menace and two parts over-the-top stereotype. Any audience would fairly be falling off their chairs with all the hilarity.

Evenson makes an interesting choice, though. The humor of "Promisekeepers" keeps chugging along, right up to the very end—but then it cuts out suddenly, like the sound in a movie, leaving the reader wrestling with the unfunny import of the final lines. For me, it was like I was still kind of laughing, but then as I finished the story, I thought, That wasn't really funny at all, was it? And I'm probably a bad person for laughing at it.

It's disconcerting, a resolution like that. I call it an interesting choice because it sort of makes the reader complicit in what the story's criticizing—I mean, here I was, following along and being entertained and snickering at these screwed-up people, so suppressed and uneducated, and then the way it ends suddenly reveals how deep their dysfunction actually runs and how darkly it will explode in everyone's faces. Evenson's use of humor, in effect, turns on the reader and judges him.

I can't help but compare "Promisekeepers" with story #25, Denis Johnson's "Two Men." Both contain a first-person narrator who moves in and out of participating in the story, and both are centered around groups of uncertain and desperate-to-compensate men who careen through the night and commit acts that cannot be undone.

But while Johnson eschews outright humor and attempts to make us understand and identify with his protagonist, even if we can't excuse what he does, Evenson invites us to laugh at these hicks. At first the humor is relatively gentle--the character names Verl and Laverl, the admission that "it takes a few beers before honesty kicks in." And I really laughed at the line, 
It does not say in the promises we have to pray aloud, and like hell are we going to in a bar, but I move my lips so that if any of the others open their eyes they will see me praying in my heart. 
But things take a slightly darker turn when the narrator explains that the group took on Ray Junior in order to fulfill the obligation to meet with "a racial man or some sort of heathen once a month." Still, though, the bigotry's played for laughs--Ray Junior's credentials turn out to be that he's "one-sixth Italian (and thus dark-complected)" and "Episcopalian instead of Southern Baptist. He is going to hell, but we believe in promise number six so for now he is our brother."

And then that finish, about which I'm being very cagey so as not to give anything away. In a way, Evenson's ending isn't really any different from Johnson's. It's just that Johnson cuts his story off with the horrible (and deadly serious) suggestion of the violence that's about to take place, while Evenson follows the laughs right up until "the police arrive." As a reader, I suppose I'm ultimately more impressed by earnest, melancholy Johnson, but I'm certainly not immune to Evenson and the way that he mixes grimness into his humor (or is that humor into his grimness?). Evenson's story can be enjoyed and appreciated right off the bat, without multiple reads or deep intellectual analysis, and though maybe this is sounding like something of a backhanded compliment, I'm trying to say that it's no mere lighthearted piece of fluff, though it quite cleverly draws you in as if it were.


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