To-Hell-You-Ride! pp. 281-317
This week's read is two shortish chapters, proceeding straight forward from last week, starting with Frank's nighttime arrival in Telluride, first seeing the "unholy radiance" of its electric street lighting, then passing a "local lunatic" who screams "To-Hell-you-ride! Goin' to-Hell-you-ride!" And that ain't just local color: Telluride is Hell, complete with the mephitic stench of tellurium compounds, "worse than the worst boardinghouse fart ever let loose."
Wikipedia's article on Telluride gives the town's history:
In 1858, the first gold was discovered.... Telluride was originally named "Columbia," but due to confusion with Columbia, California, the name was changed by the post office in 1887. The town was named after the chemical element Tellurium, which was never actually found in the mountains of Telluride.... An alternate theory for the naming of Telluride is that it is a contraction of "to-hell-you-ride."
In June 1889, Butch Cassidy and his gang The Wild Bunch robbed the San Miguel Valley Bank in Telluride. This was his first major recorded crime. He exited the bank with $24,580.
So the telluric stench is a bit of licence on our author's part, but "to-Hell-you-ride" seems to be historical.
During Frank's first evening in Telluride, he watches Guard troopers rounding up vagrants in the street, and hears that Bob Meldrum, the gunfighter, is in town. Bob is just one of a whole parade of characters in this chapter: next we get Ellmore Disco, a local merchant and "the man to see" if you want to be put in touch with Bulkley Wells, who, as it turns out, is the man Frank's looking for. Disco's general store provides one of those Pynchon catalogs, starting with bowlers and deerstalkers (Disco is a hat man) and winding up with bolts of fabric, "plain, striped, or in Oriental prints direct from Liberty's of London."
Disco and Frank chat for a while, and Disco warns Frank that Bob Meldrum is a very dangerous fellow, but Franks will need his help to see Bulkley Wells. After assuring Disco that he's not a bomber, Frank lets on that he's trying to peddle a new process for extracting gold from ore. Rather than discuss that, Ellmore Disco takes Frank with him for lunch at Lupita's taqueria, which sounds like a hell of a lot of fun, a place where the Hellishness of Telluride is manifested as food so chilified it makes your nose run.
Lupita mentions that they just missed "La Blanca," Bob Meldrum's wife, who sounds pretty scary herself and is nicknamed after her white horse "of supernatural demeanor," reminding me of the iconic white horse of Emiliano Zapata.
She inhabited this geometry of fear so effortlessly that Bob might've found her once upon a time in a story-kingdom of glass mountains every bit as peculiar as the San Juans, and trailside poets speculated that with all her solitary ranging – black cape billowing, hat down on her back, and the light of Heaven on her hair, flowered silk neckerchiefs Bob bought for her up in Montrose guttering like cold flames, in blizzards or spring-avalanche weather or the popcorn snows of August – she was riding out a homesickness too passionate for these realms of ordinary silver and gold to know much about, much less measure up to.
Damn! He better bring her back into the story! A-and that "story-kingdom of glass mountains" makes me think of the green-ice cliffs of Iceland...
That night, who should show up outside Frank's door but Bob Meldrum himself, convinced he's banging on the door of some Japanese guy who's screwing his wife, ready to blow his head off. Frank is a pretty cool customer, though, and manages to convince him (at gunpoint) that he's got the wrong man. So of course they go out drinking. Bob is somehow more comic than scary in this passage; he complains about living in the shadow of the legend of Butch Cassidy.
When Frank mentions that he'd like to meet Bulkley Wells, Bob starts to go into a fit of paranoid suspicion: "You just say what I think I heard? Wop anarchist sons of bitches rolling bombs at the man day in day out, stranger shows up asking if he's 'in town'?"
But then a funny thing happens: who should show up but Merle Rideout, who, as we may recall, is the "amalgamator" at the Little Hellkite Mine. He responds to Frank's pitch about magnetic extraction, though with some skepticism, and invites Frank up to the mine.
Just then, in comes the Japanese trade delegation, stereotypical Japanese tourists actually, right down to the cameras. Bob can't figure out which one to shoot, and the barflies taunt him; it seems La Blanca's indiscretion is pretty well known. The Japanese all simultaneously fire off their flashes, filling the room with magnesium smoke, and a general brawl erupts.
As the smoke clears, we find Merle conversing with one of the visitors, who makes a reference to the "national soul" of America. Merle cracks up, denying that there's any such thing. But the trade delegate persists, saying "An edge of steel – mathematically without width, deadlier than any katana, sheathed in the precision of the American face – where mercy is unknown, against which Heaven has sealed its borders! Do not – feign ignorance of this!
After he's gone, Merle says that the delegate is associated with Baron Akashi, who spends his time stirring up anti-Tsarist sentiment among Russian students, and that the "trade delegation" is probably interested in the local Finns, who are passionately anti-Tsarist. Plus, Merle thinks there's some industrial espionage on the agenda.
And the chapter ends with another brief reminiscence of Butch Cassidy....
To me, this chapter is sort of a collage of every Western movie and novel I've ever watched or read, peppered up with plenty of P.'s usual drolleries and surprises. It doesn't move the narrative forward much at all, but it sets up the next chapter:
Frank heads up Hellkite Road on horseback:
The longer he stayed in this town, the less he was finding out. The point of diminishing returns was fast approaching. Yet now, as the trail ascended, as snowlines drew near and the wind became sovereign, he found himself waiting for some split-second flare out there at the edges of what he could see, a white horse borne against the sky, a black rush of hair streaming unruly as the smoke that marbles the flames of Perdition.
Active imagination that Frank's got there. I don't know about the black rush of hair, but the white horse borne against the sky might mean he's thinking about La Blanca. It's also the final image in the movie "Viva Zapata!": after Zapata has been killed, his white horse is seen on top of a hill, against the sky, signifying his immortality.
Next paragraph, well hell, I have to quote that one too:
Even Frank, who was not what you'd call one of these spiritualists, could tell that it was haunted up here. Despite the day-and-night commercial bustling down below, the wide-open promise of desire unleashed, you only had to climb the hillside for less than an hour to find the brown, slumped skeletons of cabins nobody would occupy again, the abandoned bedspring from miners' dormitories left out to rust two and a half miles up into the dark daytime sky . . . the presences that moved quickly as marmots at the edges of the visible. The cold that was not all a function of altitude.
Frank reaches the Little Hellkite Mine and asks for Merle, but Merle's not around.
"He's down at Pandora, son."
"They told me he was up here."
"Then he's down one of these adits, talking to the tommyknockers, more'n likely."
Frank goes snooping into a mine entrance, and sees what he first thinks is a duende, a supernatural mine creature (a Mexican tommyknocker?). But no, it's (who else) Dally, employed as a powder-monkey these days. Who is turning out to be one of Pynchon's more charming creations. She's a teenager now, threatening to take off on her own, but Merle is keeping her in the hellhole of Telluride so as to give her an education.
"This is school, Dally – fact it's a damn college ... and the grades handed out are but two, survive or don't."
As soon as Dally's out of the room, Merle asks Frank straight out what he's up to. Turns out, he knows who Frank is. Shows him a photograph of Webb. Lets him know that his cover is pretty much blown anyway, and "Word is around, Frank. Boys want you gone."
Merle shows Frank a couple of photographs of Deuce and Sloat, and Pynchon remarks on the "curious crazed radiance which once was an artifact of having to blink a couple of hundred times during the exposure, but in this more modern form due to something authentically ghostly, for which these emulsions were acting as agents, revealing what no other record up till then could've."
Suddenly Dally is back, warning Frank to go, because "Bob and Rudie, up by the shaft house, and the wrong one is smiling." (Which one is that, and why?) Hurriedly, Merle opens a secret trap door, gives Frank a sandwich and tells Dally to see him back to town. Frank and Dally go down into a tunnel, where suddenly there is a "curious swarming, half seen, half heard." Dally calls out in an unknown language, there seems to be a reply, she calls for the sandwich, sets it down in the tunnel, and they take off running.
"Are you crazy? Don't you know who they are?"
Tommyknockers, as Merle tells us later.
They escape down the mountain in an ore bucket, Dally whooping "To Hell you ride!"
They find Telluride in the middle of a very loud Saturday evening, and go into the Gallows Frame, where the piano player is playing ragtime. Frank's never heard ragtime. Dally makes him dance to it. Then she sets him up with a place to sleep at the Silver Orchid, a whorehouse where, it turns out, Merle has sent her to be instructed about the Facts of Life.
Frank's sleep is interrupted by the arrival of Merle, who wants to tell him about "a certain Dr. Stephen Emmens," an alchemist who has been transmuting silver into gold back in New York. Frank is skeptical, but Merle, an alchemist himself after all, is sure Emmens is the real deal. And he whips out a nugget of "argentaurum," a-a-a-and – yup, a piece of that Iceland Spar. Which when you look at the nugget through the spar, you see two images of it, one gold and the other silver.
Merle says that the pre-argentauric silver – the stuff needed for transmutation – is found in close association with Iceland Spar, down in Mexico. And he's off into
"Yes and how could something weak and weightless as light make solid metals transmute? ... But consider the higher regions, the light-carrying Æther, penetrating everyplace, as the medium where change like that is possible, where alchemy and modern electromagnetic science converge, consider double refraction, one ray for gold, one for silver, you could say."
And segues from there into how "this stuff could knock the Gold Standard right onto its glorified ass."
The price difference between gold and silver, and the basis for U.S. currency in one metal or the other or both, was about the hottest economic issue in those days, the subject of William Jennings Bryan's Cross of Gold speech in 1896. Obviously if you could transmute one metal into the other, the entire game would change. And I wish someone who understands economic history better than I do would comment on this.
Frank is still skeptical. Why's Merle telling him all this?
"Because maybe what you think you're looking for isn't really what you're looking for... there is a whole catalogue of things you're not looking for."
And he thinks Webb was looking for the same, but also didn't know it. Then he clams up and tells Frank to talk to Doc Turnstone.
And then we're off into a flashback about how Merle once took the Doc down into a mine to show him the tommyknockers were real. And we learn that the tommyknockers are always stealing dynamite.
"Someplace," Dally declared, "there's at least one tommyknocker with a hell of a lot of dynamite stashed away.
"Sure it's all the same critter?
"I know it. I know his name. I speak their language."
Anyway, Frank looks up the Doc, and learns that he had his heart broken by none other than Lake. And then, to my delight, comes the passage that was released as a teaser before the release of the book: the "punkinroller" passage, a flashback into Doc Turnstone's arrival in Colorado, where he got held up by the outlaw Jimmy Drop.
And here I have to digress slightly about how very Pynchonian that name is. Some-god-only-knows-how, Pynchon ran across that term for a piece of SUV custom suspension hardware, and it stuck in his mind, to become the name of a Wild West bad guy. Oh, and a turnstone is a kind of bird....
And it comes as no surprise, by this time, that having been held up by Jimmy Drop, and fixed his bad back, Willis Turnstone wound up drinking with him. Well, it's the story of Doc's sad life, short version, as only Pynchon could tell it, as Doc tells it to Frank. When Lake ran off with Deuce Kindred, Jimmy Drop offered to kill him, Doc says.
Which is the first time Frank has heard about Lake and Deuce. It throws him for a loop, fills him with shame and rage. He goes off to find Jimmy Drop, who of course recognizes him right off and knows his whole story. (Apparently everybody does, the poor schmuck.) Jimmy remembers Lake when she was ten or eleven, teaching some kid at the ice rink the Dutch Waltz. A management kid, and Webb showed up and "Ten years now, and I've known it noisier, but I still remember that go-round."
"It wasn't even about me personally," Lake wasn't too angry to point out later, she saw it clear enough, "it was your damned old Union again."
Well and there it is, apparently, the thing that broke Lake and made her and her father such mortal enemies that she would marry his murderer.
And so we come to the end of the chapter, in which Frank, with help from Ellmore Disco, goes into disguise as an itinerant Mexican musician in an outfit called Gastón Villa and His Bughouse Bandoleros, where he is equipped with a Galandronome salvaged from the Battle of Puebla.
Is how Frank became Pancho the Bassoon Player. Within a day or two, he was actually getting a sound out of the 'sucker, and before long most of "Juanita," too. With a couple of trumpets playing harmony, it wasn't that bad, he supposed. Affecting, sometimes.
And before leaving town, Frank goes down to the graveyard and has a conversation with his father's ghost, explains to Webb how he's setting out to track down Lake and Deuce. Figures Deuce must have headed for Mexico.
So ran Frank's reasoning. Webb, who knew everything now, saw no point in trying to convince him otherwise. All he said was "D' you hear something?"
Some ghosts go oo-oo-oo. Webb had always expressed himself more by way of dynamite.
Dally finally cuts loose from Merle and heads back East. Frank goes to the station to see her off, and tries to make her promise to look up Kit, saying "you and Kit are two of a kind."
"Hell, that case I ain't going near him."
Merle bids her goodbye philosophically. It's Prospero turning Ariel loose, in The Tempest. And the chapter is done.
(The temptation is to do a bit of fantasy casting for this Western movie here. I was thinking maybe Sean Penn could do Frank...)