The Chumps of Choice

A Congenial Spot for the Discussion of Against the Day, by Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Cornell '59, and Any Other Damned Thing That Comes Into Our Heads. Warning: Grad Students and Willie-Wavers will be mocked.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Porque le falta marihuana que fumar; or, The Tarahumara Way of Knowledge (pp. 374-396)

(A cleaned-up version of the song. Source.)

First, I hope I will be indulged a small prefatory note. As most of you know, I had surgery to replace a rotten hip early in February. The surgery was a rousing success, and I'm now almost completely back to full strength. During my recovery, I was on a fairly hefty load of painkillers, which had the unfortunate side-effect of turning my once-powerful brain into a flaccid instrument with all the acuity of a bucket of mud. My ability to read and attempt to comprehend the Most Important Voice in American Postmodern Letters suffered badly, and I'm afraid I wasn't paying all the attention to our Common Enterprise that I should, as its putative host.

For this I sincerely apologize -- although you seem to have been getting along rather famously without me. I now can say with no small pleasure that I'm no longer taking those damned pills -- and am even happier to say that I no longer need those damned pills. I've caught up with the reading and the commenting, and you will be seeing quite a bit more of me for now on. I thank everyone who emailed me privately with encouragement, and in particular I thank Will Divide, an admirable friend and co-captain.

Now, enough of that, let's get on with it, shall we?

We return to Frank Traverse, following his hunch that Deuce Kindred (and possibly Lake) might have crossed the Rio Bravo (316:16) into Mexico. We are in the waning days of the period of Mexican history known as the Porfiriato, the corrupt misrule of the dictator Porfirio Diaz -- "a government that had already fallen but did not yet know it." The Mexico Frank finds is "an empty shadowmap, a dime novel of Old Mexico." There is music in the cafés at night, and revolution in the air. (Included entirely to show I've been keeping up with Comments!)

Frank is accompanied by Ewball Oust, a young mine engineer who is suffering an exile from the U.S. that he can't really understand a reason for; his family seems to want him gone, but not for any reason Ewball can fathom. He says, in a hilarious parody of casual American speech, "So what I figure it is is, is that my folks just want me out of the country." After some palaver about the comparative merits of two methods of recovering silver from tailings, Frank's mention of argentaurum brings out the topic of what is known in Mexican Spanish as espato (or, sometimes, punningly, espanto -- horror, amazement) -- Iceland spar. Ewball invites Frank to come apply for work with his family's company, here known as Empresas Oustianas, S.A. (I'm inclined to think that there's a wicked Spanish pun in that name -- hostias? [an anticlerical vulgarism] -- but I'm not married to it.)

Frank picks up his Galandronome and tootles the corrido "La Cucaracha" on it. Ewball tells Frank that the song's about General Huerta, who at this point in history is a general in Porfirio Diaz' army and is brutally subduing both indigenous peoples and Zapatistas in the south. For a fascinating account of the lyrical development of "La Cucaracha," check Cecil Adams' "The Straight Dope." Readers of Spanish will likewise enjoy this exploration of the story of the song's lyrics. Evidently, Gral. Huerta's inattention to personal hygiene and absurd dedication to smoking the Kind Bud led to great merriment among his detractors -- who were legion among Mexico's poor and exploited. Here's the chorus from the Huerta version of the song:
La cucaracha, la cucaracha (The cockroach, the cockroach)
Ya no puede caminar (Can't walk anymore)
Porque no tiene, porque le falta (because he doesn't have, because he's lacking)
Marihuana que fumar. (A fuckin' bong hit)
(Translation's a bit loose.)

Christian imagery and allusions abound in this chapter. We get the first of these as Frank and Ewball's train travels through the Mexican countryside, its denizens the campesinos waiting "for Christ to return, or depart, for good." This indecisiveness on the part of Deity will be reflected later, in the apocalyptic rant of Dwayne Provecho (oh, lord, deliver us from that pun!): "...he started to go away, and then he slowed down, like he'd had a thought, and stopped, and turned, and now he's coming back for us..." (379:22).

Frank, who is not sleeping at all well, has dreams of a mocking Deuce Kindred, which all seem to take place in the same place, a place he's convinced has an "actual counterpart" in the waking world.

Semana Santa (Holy Week, the week preceding Easter) "rolls around," and in the holiday quiet Frank and Ewball explore Guanajuato, the "old stone city" north of Mexico City where Empresas Oustianas has its dealings. It's Good Friday. Frank realizes he's actually in that "actual counterpart" of his dreamscape. Frank dismissing the affair as "just a dream," they climb a mountain overlooking the town. (The paragraph in which this happens, 377:25-32, is particularly gorgeous, the city below them "stunned as if by mysterious rays to a silence even Frank and Ewball must honor -- the passion of Christ, the windless hush... Even Silver itself taking its day of rest, as if to recognize the price Judas Iscariot received...".)

They are suddenly set upon and apprehended by a contingent of disreputable-looking rurales, for mysterious reasons. Then, on this Good Friday, they are taken to a juzgado, to a cell "deep below ground level, hewn out of the primordial rock." They do not stay there three days, however, but are taken that night, apprehensive about their fate, to el Palacio de Cristal, the ironically-named city prison. It now begins to become apparent that not only are Frank and Ewball being detained for political reasons, but that they are considered special prisoners.

Dwayne Provecho (the name is a pun on the Spanish salutation buen provecho, which is roughly equivalent to bon appétit, or "enjoy your meal") is a "religious bore," haranguing Ewball and a sleeping Frank on Christ's return. Dwayne's rant has some very interesting elements, speaking as it does of a roar in the sky, mysterious noises emanating from nowhere evident. It reminds me in no small way of the celestial choir reported by the Bindlestiffs of the Blue way back on p. 19, those "voices calling out together. All directions at once. Like a school choir, only no tune..." Perhaps Dwayne is one of those "civilians on the ground" who hear these sounds?

It also becomes apparent that Dwayne has knowledge of secret tunnels in and out of the prison, tunnels that date to the days of silver-mining within the city limits of Guanajuato -- tunnels that might come in handy if, say, you might want to break out of a Mexican jail.

It also becomes apparent that Ewball has a supply of ready whipout he's being cagey about the source of. (Hah! Read enough Pynchon, you start imitating his sentence-constructions...) This money buys them privileges, in a prison that now begins to sound pretty damned pleasant -- a cantina, a theater, reefer and opium available, and a prison population quite a cut above the usual riffraff. Not to mention the "rectal integrity." Important, that.

The screws are pretty pleasant, too -- particularly Sergeant Amparo Vásquez, a "molten-eyed" piece who lets then do "anything they had the payback for." She begins to give them more hints about the reason for their imprisonment -- that one of them (she won't say who) did something "long ago, back on the Other Side" (i.e., the U.S.). She also warns them that there's more to Dwayne than meets the eye -- that he "goes in the shadow of the paredón" (that is, that he risks being lined up and shot), that he has connections to the P.L.M -- the Partido Liberal Mexicano, the leading anti-Porfiriato political organization in the encroaching revolution -- and quite possibly even more desperate characters.

Dwayne approaches Frank and drops heavy-handed hints that he knows Frank is the Kieselguhr Kid. (See "Suggested Discussion" below for more on this matter.) Dwayne does indeed have connections to desperate revolutionary elements, and has been sent by them to enlist the legendary Kid. It emerges that Dwayne's also been talking to the Telluride contingent -- Ellmore Disco and Bob Meldrum -- and they seem to share the opinion that Frank is the Kid. Dwayne's also been spreading the word around the prison, making the place considerably less hospitable. It's time to bust out.

Through those tunnels that Dwayne knew about, the newly escaped Frank, Ewball and Dwayne scurry -- and meet the momias. Oh, yeah. They're real. A perversion of Christ's Resurrection, aren't they: Mortals disentombed, but never reborn -- their earthly remains put on display for the crime of failure to render unto Caesar... "It all gets turned to pesos and centavos, water to wine you might say," sez the Dwayne who not two pages ago was raving about the Apocalypse...

Dwayne delivers up Frank and Ewball to the Anarchists he runs with, led by El Ñato (translates as "snub-nose"), who carries on his shoulder the most amusing parrot I've come across in my wide travels through the halls of literature. Unlike the parrot of the nonfictional world, this one doesn't repeat things said to him -- Joaquín comes up with his own dialog all by himself, thanks very much. Clearly, much can be made in the symbolic line of a parrot that doesn't repeat -- or, if you like, reflect -- words back at you. Particularly when the parrot buttonholes Frank with an insult-laden harangue on Double Refraction.... "You just keep floating along in a gringo smoke cloud, thinking there's only one of everything, huevón, you don't see the strange lights all around you." It's enough to make a man consider psitticide....

El Ñato wants to give Frank his first commission as El Chavalito del Quiselgúr -- blowing up a local Palacio del Gobierno -- the town's unclear to this reporter -- as a distraction from the true objective -- a heist at the Mint. But while stealing the dynamite for the job from a nearby silver mine, they are engaged in a firefight with -- with somebody, but it's hard to tell who in the dark. Sensing the smell of Huertistas -- who have the stench of Indian blood, burned crops, stolen land, and gringo money -- El Ñato orders a retreat westward toward Sombrérete.

On the road, pursued by Huertistas, Ewball brings a sight to Frank's attention: Three Tarahumara Indians, a man and two women, almost entirely naked and taking refuge in a cave, are being set upon by Huertista outliers. (That bit about their running faster than antelopes, by the way: That's real too. The Tarahumara pride themselves on their ability to run fast and far -- for days on end. No coca, either.) Ewball, with a hitherto unexhibited skill with a shooting-iron, sends the Huertistas packing with a few brilliantly aimed shots. Frank, no doubt thinking of ducking El Ñato and his anarchists, decides to stay with the Indians, while Ewball, who's developed a real feel for this Anarchism stuff, considers going back up north, to the Other Side. The friends part ways.

With the Tarahumara now, Frank gets a whopper of a psychology lesson. The younger of the two women is named Estrella, whose name is identical to his brother's wife, Stray. And yes, he's got quite the log, there...

Frank comes to understand that he has been looking for "the one duende or Mexican tommyknocker" who could "take him beyond his need for the light or wages of day." El Espinero, as close to a Carlos Castaneda brujo as you're likely to find outside the pages of Tales of Power, leads Frank up a mountain to an abandoned silver working, and shows him an utterly flawless piece of calcite spa, a "twin crystal, pure, colorless, without a flaw." El Espinero directs him to look into it. He sees -- or thinks he sees -- the image of Sloat Fresno, Deuce Kindred's sidekick. In a flash-forward, he tells Ewball that the Indian had said that it wasn't a real piece of spar, but the "idea of two halves, of balancing out lives and deaths."

Later, El Espinero hands Frank a peyote button. "You have," he tells him, "fallen into the habit of seeing dead things better than live ones." The hikuli -- the peyote -- is a cure for -- he waves his hand in a gesture that encompasses...everything.

It's quite a trip. He finds himself flying over the landscape with Estrella, who has become "Estrella/Estrella," a combination of, or refraction of, both the Tarahumara girl and his sister-in-law. They come to a cave in which rain falls steadily. This rain, Estrella/Estrella tells him, is the rain that would have been falling on the parched desert but now falls only in this place -- the result of the original sin that created the desert. "Back when they were designing the world --" Frank interrupts: "They." (Why Frank would bridle at the implication of polytheism among an indigenous American people is a bit of a poser, but it's sure a good chance to get in that most Pynchonian of words...)

"They." In Tarahumara cosmology, God's got a wife and kids.

"The idea was that water should be everywhere, free to everybody. It was life. Then a few got greedy."

The original sin.

As Frank parts from the Tarahumara, he sidles over to El Espinero, asks, "Oh, by the way, that hikuli? got any more of that?"

El Espinero laughs, points at a cactus on the ground. The stuff grows free. You just have to recognize it.

That white boy's a bit of a slow learner, ain't he....

And shortly after seeing a vision of Sloat in that extraordinary piece of spar, who should he run into in a dusty cantina in a tiny pueblo in the middle of nowhere... The violence is quick and deadly. One half of his father's murderers accounted for.


Suggested Discussion

Who the hell is the Kieselguhr Kid? Was it ever Webb Traverse? His sons certainly believe it was -- Reef, carrying his father's body back to Telluride from Jeshimon, ponders carrying on the "family business" (p. 214). Yet the federales are passing around photos of Frank, and Ellmore Disco and Bob Meldrum (according to Dwayne Provecho) are convinced it's Frank. Is the Kid becoming a legend, a container that anybody can dump anything they want into? Fiction?

The Christian allusions through the first half of this chapter peter out after Frank and Ewball bust out of jail. Yet the chapter ends with a very different creation story. How do the two cosmologies inform each other?

The spar El Espinero shows Frank is very strange indeed. It's got two lobes -- does this crystal refract itself?


At Monday, April 02, 2007 2:50:00 PM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Cracking good job, for a 'lude head, Ned. You are an inspiration to the rest of us Chumps.

A nice, page-turning chapter here. I'm reminded of the novella folded into Robbins' larger masterpiece, The Carpetbaggers (now, astoundingly, out of print), the revenge story of cowboy Nevada Smith - which made a pretty good Steve McQueen movie on its own.

Grace, or the lack of it, pops up again, in Gaston Villa's (reaching to an English football club for that joke) inability to enter Mexico (374:12)

Joaquin the parrot joins my company of favorite minor characters ("... mi capitan the adventure has haunted me." Hilarious.) and I wonder if we didn't catch a glimpse on him earlier, that parrot with a disdainful smile on the label of the hot sauce iCuidado Cabron! (129:38) that led the Vormance Expedition into a foreshadowing bout of hysteria and recrimination.

In keeping with the screwy time frame, Frank spends months that seemed like years on his dime novel Mexican adventure (in which he dreams, 381:14, of joining the Chums??), while some readers may still be trying to account for the years that seem like months in the previous Kit and Stray chapter.

Though Joaquin quizzes Frank of the meaning of double-named cities, (pg 387) he leaves out the big one, New York, New York.

I don't know what that means.

At Monday, April 02, 2007 6:54:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

I believe the Kieselguhr Kid was Webb Traverse, but since he was being secretive about it, the character obviously became legendary and lots of bombings, whether committed by him or not, were probably attributed to the Kid. Something like this is discussed with Bob Meldrum talking about how Butch Cassidy got all the glory and credit when most of the criminal exploits weren't even his.

Once somebody becomes legendary, a la the Zodiac Killer or the Unabomber for instance, they could be anyone and everyone. Reef has definitely picked up where dad left off but I can see why other characters would be confused about Frank. He's got all the right qualifications and ancestry to be The Kid. Still, he just doesn't happen to be blowing shit up, with dynamite OR gas, preferring instead to hang out with Indios in the Mexican desert for a while.

I too enjoyed the whole Mexican section, partly because I love the country and Pynchon gets the tone right. The outrageously comfortable and well-appointed prison is again not that far from reality. When people arrested for drugs during the 1970s were given the option of getting out of Mexican jails as long as they served the rest of their sentence in American prisons, most of them declined. If you have access to money, you can live pretty well in a Mexican prison.

At Thursday, April 05, 2007 6:41:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i liked this section, but i kept expecting him to shift into a McCarthy/Blood Meridian voice. Cormac has ruined descriptions of the Mexican desert for me.

At Thursday, April 05, 2007 8:30:00 AM, Blogger Boldly Serving Up Wheat Grass said...

Maybe my brain's on vacation this week, but I'm finding this section more confusing than any other so far. (Could be the Spanish words throwing me off from time to time.) I need to re-read before commenting (though I've certainly underlined a few things I want to bring up). Hopefully, I'll be able to get back to this site within another day or so...

At Friday, April 06, 2007 9:19:00 AM, Blogger Joseph said...

Another excllent chapter summary.

Coupla things stuck out for me. 1) crystal visions vs. herbal visions: After some time in various levels of colonial Mexican societies, all ruled by cash and guns or its pursuit, all with symbolic references to a descent into hell which seems to continue Frank's "path", one called the Crystal palace , Frank finds another underground Mexico. He enters the world of the Tarahumara, a world without cash or servitude where he gets what he seems to have been looking for, an insight into the mystical properties of iceland spar. He foresees the location of an encounter with Sloat Fresno. Later Oust comments that this vision is rather less than enlightenment, is really "Pretty durn bleak for some magical crystal..."

This crystal mediated vision is followed by a little story of hunting where El Espinero points out that Frank is in the habit of seeing dead things better than live ones. A powerful cultural contrast and and lead into his second visionary experience with the Hikuli. After flying with Estrella (Star) under the stars Frank again plunges underground, and is guided past his fears by the girl. He enters a cavern where poetically all the rain meant for the desert is falling, constrained here during a cosmic battle at the dawn of creation. She notes that the legendary stories of underground gold are really about water.

Later though convinced of its "reality" Frank can't think of any use for this herbal vision. Now we are living in a time when water is a power greater than gold and underground aquifers are the stuff of legends.

Those in power still think native tribes and their knowledge are worthless, and most prefer crystalized versions of their herbs.

Frank seems to be learning a little about the power of kindness, friendship, and the limits of violence to change things at the same time as he becomes more accutey aware of the larger social and political dynamics he is part of .Pretty easy to identify with that shit. He immediately regrets killing S Fresno.

2) There seems to be more discrepancy between Franks inner life and his social persona than other characters.

Inwardly he is somewhat shy of women and more dedicated to the memory of Estrella Briggs than his brother. He is genuinely fascinated by properties of matter and light, is drawn to the company of the Tarahumara, regrets killing Sloat.
Outwardly he is rowdy, smart alecky, cynical, a tough negotiater.

At Friday, April 06, 2007 7:20:00 PM, Blogger Boldly Serving Up Wheat Grass said...

Few late questions/comments...

p375, 6th paragraph. I thought it was a little odd to read the phrase "return on investment" -- something that's become quite the catch-phrase in the modern-day business world. Anyone know if it was a common business metric back in those times (worded exactly as such)?

p381: Will, yeah, it seems he was dreaming of the Inconvenience. Or, I think we're supposed to think that. But what it all means I'm not sure yet.

p386: "Frank, seeming to enter a partial vacuum in the passage of time..." Interesting...

p395: Neat to see a Budweiser reference! Took me out of the story for a moment, but I suppose their marketing was indeed ubiquitous in the U.S. by this time.

I had some further thoughts regarding the sexuality within this section, but my computer's getting glitchy...

At Sunday, April 08, 2007 11:40:00 AM, Blogger Monstro D. Whale said...

My feeling for this section is that the "doubling thing," which has been all but religious in previous chapters is, in this section, pretty mundane. Mining in Colorado is like mining in Mexico. Cities named after states. Frank getting mistaken for Reef. It's almost like Pynchon is taking a step back from all the mysticism that surrounds the icelandic spar.

At Sunday, April 08, 2007 9:42:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

I love brooktrout's ruminations which are poetic in their own right. And Mr. Divide, the real big one not mentioned isn't "New York, New York" but "Mexico, Mexico." Mexico City within Mexico is referred to by the shorthand De Efe (for D.F., Distrito Federal, or Federal District) or more commonly as simply "Mexico."

Though my Spanish has always been crappy, I did get a few of the jokes in this magical section which others may not have. Page 379:32 has Ewball, in response to Frank's paranoia about his pockets being mysteriously full of cash in prison, saying "no say prayo-coopy, compadre" which is a hilarious rendition of gringo-accented Spanish. It literally means "don't preoccupy yourself, partner" and loosely as "don't worry about it, dude."

Page 380:9 also has a made-up word, I think, which is "centavodeon," the Mexican version of that newfangled invention the nickelodeon. Another made-up bit of Spanglish, I think, is "El Chavalito de Quiselgur," which first appears at 385:40. "Chavalito" is Spanish for tiny goat, in other words, "Kid," but I very much doubt that "Chavalito" is used in the same way. But then, cultural translation between Mexico and the United States has always been strange. The movie "Grease" was a huge hit in the late 1970s as "Vaselina."

And then there's the utterly weird business at page 386:30 where Frank is telling Ewball how much his appearance has changed lately, as the latter finds a new family as a Mexican revolutionary to replace the family up north that has abandoned him. "Que guapa, que tetas fantasticas, verdad?" means, "How beautiful you are, what fantastic teats, right?" Will somebody please try to explain?

And Mr. Villamar, you are very much missed. Will you please put in a final word about this journey into your world?

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