November 30, 2022

A November Farewell with Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and Veronica Lake

By Stuart Mitchner

… a damp, drizzly November in my soul ….
—Herman Melville

In the opening paragraph of Moby Dick, Ishmael makes cheerful poetry of the perennial November gloom, which is spelled out in scary-shaky black letters atop Roz Chast’s cartoon in the November 21 New Yorker. The three Chastesquely despairing characters are a frizzy-haired woman bundled up in a coat (“It’s only 4:15 but it’s PITCH DARK!”), a shivering young man rubbing his hands together (“Something is seriously amiss.), and under the last word-balloon a hair-tearing embodiment of horror (“It’s the end of the world.”).

For the purposes of this end-of-the-month column, I’m replacing the three Chastettes with two writers of note and a movie star. Mark Twain arrived in Florida, Missouri, on the last day of November 1830, along with Hailey’s Comet, which reappeared in time for his exit in 1910. Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis 100 years ago on November 11, 1922, three days before Veronica Lake appeared in Brooklyn under her birth name, Constance Frances Marie Ockelman. Thirty-two years later, November 26, 1954, Roz Chast herself was born — in Brooklyn. Although I stopped watching quiz and game shows long ago, it seemed there was always a contestant from Brooklyn who would inevitably be greeted with a level of enthusiasm (wild applause, shrill whistlings, cheers) afforded no other earthly locality.

Huck’s Poetry

I must have sensed Twain’s birthday approaching when I brought him into last week’s celebration of David Milch, his series Deadwood, and his mentor Robert Penn Warren, who said of Huckleberry Finn: “The invention of this language, with all its implications, gave a new dimension to our literature. It is a language capable of poetry” — made possible because Twain tells his story in Huck’s voice:

“A little smoke couldn’t be noticed now, so we would take some fish off of the lines and cook up a hot breakfast. And afterwards we would watch the lonesomeness of the river, and kind of lazy along, and by and by lazy off to sleep. Wake up by and by, … and maybe see a steamboat coughing along up-stream, so far off towards the other side you couldn’t tell nothing about her only whether she was a stern-wheel or side-wheel; then for about an hour there wouldn’t be nothing to hear nor nothing to see — just solid lonesomeness.”

The “we” is Huck and Jim, whose fate as a slave on the run shapes the direction of the novel for better (the heart of it) or worse (the shambles of the denouement). In a passage near the end, when Huck is on the verge of giving Jim up (thus the shambles), there’s poetry in the way he’s “thinking over our trip down the river … I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing … and [I] see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and [he] would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was … and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now….”

Twain found more than poetry in his reinvention of Huck’s voice, thereby escaping from the prose conventions he’d had to deal with in Life on the Mississippi, free to delight in double negatives and bent grammar in defiance of all that is “civilized.” But beware attempting to finding poetry in Huck. Witness, for example, the punishments listed in the notice at the beginning: “Persons attempting to find a moral in this narrative will be persecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

Graphic Vonnegut

A Book of Days for the Literary Year (Thames and Hudson 1984), which I cited some weeks ago, pairs Kurt Vonnegut’s birth with a typically mordant quote: “This is what I find most encouraging about the writing trades. They allow mediocre people who are patient and industrious to revise their stupidity.” You have to go all the way back to Twain to find another mustachioed novelist/humorist with such a black view of human nature. In A Man Without A Country (2005), Vonnegut declares, “Like my distinct betters Einstein and Twain, I now give up on people, too.”

Having just finished a graphic novel adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five by Ryan North and Albert Monteys (Archaia 2020), I’ve seen the blasted, bombed-out roots of Vonnegut’s cynicism. The graphic edition is prefaced by this statement: “The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I’m in.” So it goes. And so it goes and goes and goes.

Writing about Vonnegut after his death in 2007, I quoted the doomsday message he’d delivered the previous August in a Rolling Stone interview: “I’m sorry. It’s over. The game is lost.” Put those words in a balloon over his head and he’d fit right in with Roz Chast’s despairing November threesome.

The riveting graphic vision of Billy Pilgrim’s progress from the Battle of the Bulge, to prison camp, to the meat-locker shelter during the fire-bombing of Dresden is done in a style that reminds me of the savage Will Elder/Jack Davis school of EC Comics to which I graduated from Classics Comics, Donald Duck, Little Lulu, and Captain Marvel. The drawing is bold and brilliant, in striking contrast to the crudity of the Classic Comics version of Huckleberry Finn, where the single strongest pictorial creation is the cover (shown here). The most devastating images in Slaughterhouse-Five are the two-page panoramas of Dresden before (“The skyline was intricate and voluptuous and enchanted and absurd.”) and after (“Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead. So it goes”).

The Girl

I first encountered Veronica Lake in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Sal Paradise is on a Greyhound Bus with a Mexican girl he’s just met and is already falling in love with; she’s asleep in his lap as the bus arrives in Hollywood, in “the gray, dirty dawn, like the dawn when Joel McCrea met Veronica Lake in a diner, in the picture Sullivan’s Travels.” Looking out the window, Sal sees “stucco houses and palms and drive-ins, the whole mad thing, the ragged promised land, the fantastic end of America.” Besides being a great American film, Preston Sturges’s 1941 masterpiece is one of the great American road movies. (The title is a play on Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, who was born on November 30, 1667.)

Back in the diner, John L. Sullivan, a director of lightweight musical comedies played by McCrea (born November 5, 1905), has just returned from the debacle of his first expedition into the “real America” disguised as a tramp. He’s at the counter drinking a cup of coffee when an evening-gowned beauty in an overcoat played by Lake (known only as The Girl in the cast list) tells the counter man, “Give him some ham and eggs,” offers the “tramp” a cigarette, and lights it. She’s on her way back east from a failed shot at the movie business that Sullivan is fed up with after directing pictures like Hey Hey in the Hayloft; he wants to make serious movies on big issues. “Things are tough everywhere,” he tells the beauty with the flowing, peek-a-boo hair, thinking about his mission, possibly hoping to start a conversation he can use in the film. “War in Europe. Strikes over here. No work, no food.” The Girl gives him a look. “Drink your coffee while it’s hot,” she says. She pays for his breakfast. As Pauline Kael wrote many years later, Lake underacts “with perfect composure.”

A Golden November

Contrary to Roz Chast’s cartoon, November 2022 in the New York area has been an autumnal glory for the ages. Never mind that the Sunday I’m writing this happens to be grey and drizzly, it won’t be enough to tarnish the memory of a golden month. And anyway, literature has plenty of room for Melville’s “damp and drizzly” soul and Charles Dickens’s “Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.”

Don’t Forget Kerouac

Jack Kerouac’s 100th birthday was on March 12 and will be celebrated here before the year is out. In Joyce Johnson’s biography The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, she recalls first seeing him sitting at a lunch counter in Greenwich Village wearing a black and red checked shirt. She ends up paying for his meal.