jptArchive Iss 12
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Like many modern novels, this one begins at the end, after the death and burial of Roger Hornbeck, the central character, murdered in a complicated love triangle—or maybe it was a rhomboid.  The story’s narrator, who is a newspaper reporter, travels back home again to Indiana to excavate the truth about the murder.  It becomes a voyage into painful memories for Mr. Gaskell. 
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Jerry Gaskell:   July 9, 1960

Well:  Roger Hornbeck was dead.  There were facts in the matter, and they had been broadcast by the press and by the fluttering tongues of Milton for five days.  He was dead and properly installed under a mound of yellowish clay in the cemetery, on a fresh and barren hillside dotted only by a scattering of funerary firs and a few small stones.  There was no doubt that the man the undertakers had so carefully manicured, shaved and arranged, looking weirdly serious in his death-mask of synthetic coloring, was the original one-and-only Roger Hornbeck.

Jerry had gazed down into the coffin’s splash of watered silk lining, in which the shrunken face floated like a wafer, and tried to remember whether he had ever known this man.  The clown’s mask had withered to the solemn look of a small clerk studying an arrears column:  Yorick was now solidly interred, sloping without a jest or quip into the sodden summer earth to the dolorous drone of the Presbyterian minister.  And the funeral cars had scattered out through the iron gates of death, leaving Jerry to hike alone across the hills and valleys of the graveyard.  He walked aimlessly, in search of life in the still heart of summer.  The bells on the college chapel pealed once, resonating across the marbleyard at the cemetery gates, and a dense squadron of birds passed twittering overhead.  Jerry had watched them as a portent—they were starlings, ugly mottled birds, ubiquitous and noisy.  Flights of starlings squeak and gibber you to rest, sweet prince. 

No rain came.  Instead, a weak crescent of sunlight showed in the western clouds, a foolish grin from the sky as a wordless epitaph for the man and the day.

 * * * * *

Indiana?  Name the names:

            Hymera & Dugger & Pimento
            Cuno & Cuba & Carp
            Youno & Pinhook & Oolitic
            Celestine & Willow Valley & Birdseye
            Buena Vista & Kossum & Saint Louis Crossing
            Solitude & Paradise & Starlight
            Brick Chapel & Amo & Onward
            State Line & Town of Pines & Disko
            Phlox & Windfall & Corunna
            Young America & Santa Claus & Ginga
            Buddha & Fulda & Scipio
            St. Omer & Bean Blossom & Vevay
            Centersquare & Quercus Grove & Honey Creek
            Redkey & Salamonica & Gas City
            Jalapa & Sweetsers & Numa
            Paragon & Poega & Eminence
            Vigo & Merom & Beal
            Iona & Union & Bufkin
            Stone Head & Story & Roachdale

What do the names of villages and village sites, houses rotted away and grown over by long weeds or left as a conventicle of boarded storefronts and collapsing barns, say about a place and its people?  The names tell nothing, sound like no language, no people, no sense of place or time or culture or history.  They could have been invented by a machine, imagined by a dying, drunken poet, collected by an anthropologist or a medium passing through Terra Incognita, but they tell nothing of what people once cultivated this land, explored marshes and the edges where great forests and prairies met, fought Indians, turned Copperhead or Union soldier, lived, coupled, died.  There are no Indian names from great sagas, no village names imported from Europe or tracing great families.

The names are synthetic and inhuman, products of starved imaginations and leperous intellects. They have been formed by putting letters together in random order—like the outlanders who clung to the edges of the Greeks’ little round world we make the doggy sound “bar-bar” when we speak, and our tongues are cloven to produce these misshapen names.  The backroad traveler in Indiana reads nothing from the names of our places.  He might be on Mars with Jon Carter, on the nether side of Andromeda in the 23rd century, in Asia Minor waiting for the horsemen of Tamerlane to return.  The names lack even the quaintness of dialect speech, the vigor of illiteracy.  Some stink of the study, of the village intellectual squatting in a squalor of old foolscap and broken-backed books. The names are weak puns and mixed metaphors, lapsus linguae of a sleeping dwarf.

Indiana?  Recite the sites:

The night is a tunnel, a black tube bending down U.S. 40 from Indianapolis, and the bus pulses slightly, swaying regularly, seemingly at rest except for the grey blur beyond the tinted windows:  back from the road on the flat prairie are lights, clusters of weak yellow wafers spaced evenly down the road.  Each light marks a farm, and on the dim line of the horizon bulky silhouettes of barns and silos describe the limits of the fields.  People huddle out there in blackness, sitting behind their windows waiting for the light or for the end of the world.

The bus bisects crossroads villages, a half-dozen frame houses pushed together around a sodium-vapor lamp, even bleaker in the lime flare than in total darkness.  Some houses on the black farms glow blue around pulled shades, where natives gather tribally before their television totems.  The aerials are tall, reaching a long way for signals, sucking tiny pictures from the void down to the families praying below, reassuring them of the existence of a solid world beyond their four walls and eighty acres. 

The night is phantasmal.  Jerry Gaskell kneads the flesh on the back of his hands to recall himself to himself.  Beside him a little dried man talks endlessly—an insurance salesman who thirty years before taught grade school in Milton.  He asks of dead and disintegrated visions:  Eula Cartwright, the old Campbell place, Mayor Beeding?  Outside, in the summer night beyond the bus, the ambience is stronger:  walking in the Indiana night brings vertigo and sensory dislocation.  It is impossible to remember even up and down, and you may suddenly fall up off the world, catapulted into a parabola of infinite pitch by the earth’s unfriendly rotation.  You drag your feet to reassure yourself of gravity and stability of place, of the solid earth holding you safe in its grip.

The raspy voice of the old man claws his ear, and Jerry turns to the window, which dimly mirrors his face while it also reveals a ghostly landscape shining through.  So he is projected into and through the land flowing past the vehicle.  There is a truth in the image, in the sequence of random pictures that flicker green and black through the flat image of his thin face and dark eyes.

Camping out in the night as a boy in the fields just beyond Milton:  the sensation of absolute Aloneness—not loneliness or solitude but aloneness—and foreboding.  Something about to happen, events and people verging on some climactic event but never quite reaching the instant of action or combustion.  Jerry is seized by a strong sense of memory and returns to a moment from a dozen years earlier:

                Then I did not belong to the world or the human race but to voices of limbo,
            choirs of void.  Lying back and locating the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper,
            Betelgeuse, Mars, familiars of the dished sky, and feeling the earth beginning
            to slip behind my back, turning in a slow circle below the constellations.  I
            wanted to scream for help, even though the nearest farm was miles away.  And
            I was afraid of what would happen if I did yell.  Someone might answer—some
            Voice out of the scrub woods, some Thing which would come lurching on silent
            feet for me out of the Indian mound a quarter-mile to the south, a tumulus like
            a tit of the earthy which housed God knows what incubi.  There might be some-
            one or something which wanted to reclaim Indiana from me, a force to step on
            me with giant’s boots.  I curled into the lining of my sleeping bag and concen-
            trated on the familiar sexual fantasies that always aimed me toward sleep.
               On a little bluff, what passed for a hill in this flat land, with a creek running
            twenty feet below me.  The smell of fields somewhere close by, the perpetual
            scent of fresh harvest.  A last glance at the Indian mound, nubile in the moon-
            light:  perhaps the old aboriginal warriors would swarm from the breast-womb if
            I cried out.  And they would confess that they did not perish from battle wounds
            or disease or the soft erosions of history but from the same cosmic aloneness
            which gnawed at me.  We would shake hands solemnly over the eons and
            agree about the malaria of the soul which weakened everyone who clung to this
            alluvial land.

In the desert night countryside of Indiana beyond the bus windows lived thousands of innocent and humble beings, people who crawled the surface of the earth and clawed at it, farming, manning grocery stores and insurance offices, who worked on the railroad or struggled to run a movie theater in a shrinking town.  And no one knew another or understood why the earth is not a clockwork toy wound by a giant.  None met to talk, to say anything true, although jaws moved and diaphragms pulsed, vocal cords resonated and the delicate chain of bones of the inner ear refracted a thin music.  The manikins gesticulated, nodded, shook hands, reproduced the simulacra of laughter or anger.  Yet the ether of loneliness inflated them, insulated them, fed them.  Basilisks, they fed on air and walked on water.  Their god of place was Terminus, and boundaries were—property lines, fences, walls and insulation, clothes and coverings.

As the bus decelerated, left the highway in a burst of bright intersection lights and swung into the outer streets of Milton, Jerry turned back to the sounds of speech beside him.  The little man was hunched and knotted in the throes of his narrative, and he gestured tightly with withered hands to underscore his story.

“. . . worst thing to happen that I recall.  I suppose all the papers and the radio and teevee have gotta make a big thing out of it, but these people have gotta live with it for the rest of their lives.  Missus Hornbeck has been a saint through the whole thing, though, no matter what you might think.  You’d think she’d have a nervous breakdown, but she’s borne up real well through the police and newspapers and all.  It helps, I tell everybody—and I’m not just sellin’ myself or Northern Mutual, either—that at least Roger had the good sense to cover himself well.  She’ll be taken care of when it’s all settled.  That man listened to me twenty years ago, and he took a good comprehensive policy.  And that’s what it takes in this world of ours, young man.”

As the bus pitched to a complete stop, the little man was on his feet in the aisle, dragging a battered Gladstone bag and a raincoat from the overhead rack.  Before he turned away, he showed a broken-toothed smile, shook Jerry’s hand, thanked him for the fine conversation and slipped a business card into his palm.  Jerry shoved the cardboard into his pocket unread—it was like Death’s own calling card.  He sat still until the bus emptied. ###

jptArchive Iss 12
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The Journal of Provincial Thought