E-Extra!! Read All About It!... Evil Deal Goes Down; Yale Prof. Grabs Big Bucks... Chicago Pariah Finds New Life As P.I... Chums Ordered Eastward...
"You're an artiste, Miss McAdoo?"
Precis of Pgs. 26-56
The day following the Chum's arrival at the baloonists' camp, they meet there Merle Rideout and Chevrolette McAdoo, the photographer and model they'd rousted with sand bags during their hasty descent on pg. 13. Rideout is the father of young Dahlia (or Dally), whom he is raising in the absence of her mother, Erlys, who ran off, we learn, to perform with an itinerant Italian magician, Zombini the Mysterious, she'd only just met.
As they get acquainted, Professor Heino Vanderjuice of Yale University, a friend of the Chums, and an old running buddy of Rideout's, arrives at their camp with his assistant, Ray Ipso. The Professor is in Chicago to meet Scarsdale Vibe, an evil financial magnate, though he does not tell this to his friends over lunch. Later that day, at a meeting in Vibe's suite at the Palmer House Hotel, attended also by Ipso and Vibe's henchman Foley Walker, Vanderjuice accepts, for a very large fee, the job Vibe offers him. He agrees to build a device to neutralize one that Nikola Tesla is working on. Tesla's machine is intended to produce vast amounts of electricity for free.
After accepting Vibe's offer, Vanderjuice wonders if any amount of money could replace his friendship with the boys who that day even in their usual unworldliness, had regarded him with something like apprehension (35:5), once they find out what he's done.
In the meantime, the Chums have taken on their paid passenger from White City Investigations, Lew Basnight, a character with a lengthy backstory, who is about to be transferred to Denver to monitor labor activities there. With Basnight, they fly above the fair on a private security detail, paying particular attention to the fences.
As the passage draws to a close, possibly days later, the Chums are up in the Inconvenience with Lew and a reflective Professor Vanderjuice, who muses about the closing of the American frontier as they sail over the Chicago stockyards.
After Lew and the Chums exchange gifts, he departs for Denver. Apparently stuck in Chicago, the Chums suffer low spirits until new orders arrive mysteriously one night, ordering them to fly east. The fair over, the passage ends with the stray dogs and cats of the great exposition happily remembering their conversations and excursions with Pugnax.
Lew Basnight's Backstory (37:10 - 52:8)
An amnesia victim who cannot recall the incident which has not only alienated his wife's affections, but also turned him into a social pariah (He became known as the Upstate-Downstate Beast 37:23), Lew Basnight further suffers because no one will tell him what exactly it was he did. Now something of a human cipher, Lew quits his office job and eventually joins a kind of cult, headed by a man named Drave, who is assisted by Hershel, a mysterious bellhop. They promise to teach Lew detachment.
After gaining something like enlightenment, Lew is in a cigar store one day when a customer, Nate Privitt, somehow recognizes his intense powers of observation. Privitt offers him a job as an operative for White City Investigations, which Lew accepts immediately.
Just previous to his Chums assignment, Lew was protecting the Austrian Archduke Francis (Franz) Ferdinand (whose date with an assassin in Sarajevo in 1914 kicks off WW 1), and the Duke's murderous bodyguard Max Khautsch (umlaut over the a), as they follow the Duke's baser instincts through Chicago's high and low nightspots.
Another of Lew's recent jobs had him spying on a clergyman labor leader, the Rev. Moss Gatlin, and beginning to feel something like sympathy for Gatlin's cause. One day not long after, Lew is ordered, with no explanation, to Colorado for more anti-union work.
Style, Themes and a few Fine Points
Stylistically the section begins in the parodic Boys' Adventure voice, with a heavy Perelman undertow. The passage starting at 26:9 You bean brain all the way to 27:3 shows the master's touch:
"You're an artiste, Miss McAdoo?"
"I perform the Dance of Lava-Lava, the Volcano Goddess," she replied.
The narrative voice changes to one of rather subtle observation before the friends' lunch on pg. 30, and mainly stays that way to the end of the section. The meeting between Vibe and Vanderjuice is straightforwardly told, as, one is made to see, their transaction is a baldly cynical one, with implications of outright evil.
Thematically, we have in Lew Basnight, like Miles Blundell of the Chums, the quintessential Pynchon hero, a likeable dolt possessing sentient gifts beyond his own understanding. The most notable of these heroes is Tyrone Slothrop, from Gravity's Rainbow, and the organization that finds and takes up Basnight here, White City Investigations, is surely an echo of the White Visitation, Slothrop's institutional overseers in that novel.
Scarsdale Vibe is another Pynchon bastion - one of Them, the People Who Run Things; ofttimes hidden, perhaps shapeshifting, always malign. As such, Vibe is a treat; dropping a scolding old woman in the Palmer House lobby, (31:21) like a tree, with a small bullet to the leg. Scarsdale, aside from a scarred dale, is a very affluent suburb of New York City. Its vibe is fairly heavy.
The Betrayal of Idealistic Youth by Cynical Old Age is another Pynchon theme, as is the Corruption of Knowledge for the ends of Power. Both tropes are at large in Vanderjuice's bargain with Vibe, and very likely in everything which follows.
The thematic center of the passage is Vanderjuice's dark musings as he sails with the Chums and Basnight over the stockyards; observations which re-animate the earlier idea of the progressive reduction of choices (10:20) that lead to the killing floor.
"Here's where the Trail comes to the end at last, along with the American Cowboy who used to live on it and by it." (53:2) "The frontier ends and disconnection begins. Cause and effect? How the dickens do I know?" (53:35)
My ears pricked up at the mention of Dickens. . .
The passage on Basnight beginning at 54:3 is pure Pynchon paranoia; his hero in danger of being disconnected from himself merely for traveling someplace new; and maybe delivered into the control of potent operatives who did not wish him well.
There's a ton of other things going on, which I have glossed over rather tidily. Of particular note is the throwaway line of Ferdinand's as he bolts from a south side bar, The Boll Weevil Lounge, after insulting its black patrons and without paying his hefty tab: (48:34) And when Franz Ferdinand pays, everybody pays! Well, he paid all right in Sarajevo and you might say the world has been paying ever since.
I loved Lew Basnight's story, in which his life is shown to be a kind of waking nightmare. The pulp elements surrounding Basnight include touches of H.P. Lovecraft, in his lost wandering in increasingly strange neighborhoods of what was once a familiar city, as well as Dashiell Hammett - who was a Pinkerton man before taking up the pen. The "hard boiled" prose of Hammett in particular is an essential American voice and has been a heavy influence on our writers ever since. Hammett's amoral hero of his Continental Agency (Pinkerton) tales is a nameless, overweight man he called the Continental Op; a character neatly mirrored by the plump and dapper (42:29) Nate Privitt of White City Investigations.
We also see in this section how the terms of the Chums' existence are apparently specific to the realms of fiction. (36:2) [...] the great national celebration possessed the exact degree of fictitiousness to permit the boys access and agency. The harsh non-fictional world waited outside the White City's limits [...] making the entire commemorative season beside Lake Michigan at once dream-like and real. We already know the ground population regards them with contempt and pity (25:24), and their old friend Vanderjuice here considers their usual unworldliness. What's more, the Chums are under the sway of an invisible force. Still in Chicago after Basnight leaves, (54:36) They seemed held here, as if under some unconfided spell.
Not to make too big an issue of this, but the harsh non-fiction world greets the reader each time she closes the covers of ATD. The Chums inhabit one fictional enclosure within the realm of a much larger one. Indeed alternating fictions seem to rub up against each other in Against the Day; the changing narrative styles being the main giveaway of this. The spell the Chums are under, I submit, is one completely of their author's making, an author who sends written (55:23) orders silently delivered in the night.
And as if there isn't enough going on, there's that Black Spot on page 40. I don't know about you, but my copy has a splotch of ink between lines 10 and 14, obscuring several words in the description of the weird hotel Basnight stays in while studying with Drave and Hershel. I have a hard time believing it's there by accident, Sterne dashed several blobs of ink across pages of Tristram Shandy after all, but I gotta say I'm stumped here. Call it something like a sun spot and press on, sez I.