Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"Don't Play Dead Before You Have To."

If you really want to survive you've got to figure out how to con your parents. The best way is to do something dumb such as play Little Leaugue. Boy, do those kids get everything they want! But to do that you've got to work like hell and be ambitious and all that crap. Never could do it myself. But maybe you could. No, I'd rather you didn't. Kids who play Little League grow up real ugly and what's worse they bring out the worst in their parents. 

In 1969 Philip Roth published Portnoy's Complaint, which was all a monologue from Portnoy to his shrink. The next year came Don't Play Dead Before You Have To, which is almost entirely a a transcription of things Byron says to Charlemagne Nordstrom, the genius kid he's babysitting. In the early chapters he's a bit of  Holden Caulfield type - about one step beyond a juvenile delinquent as he helps "Charlie" con his parents into getting a TV, Cokes, and potato chips for the next time he babysits. We hear none of the Charlie's responses, except when Byron says things like "What's that? You want to know what my mom's like? What do you want to know that for?"  As a prose form, it's not 100% successful, but it's an interesting experiment.

The book opens with a quote from Robert F. Kennedy: "In such a fantastic and dangerous world - we will not find answers in old dogmas, by repeating outworn slogans, or fighting on ancient battlefields against fading enemies...we ourselves must change to master change. We must rethink all our old ideas and beliefs before they capture and destroy us."

From there, the book tells the story of how Byron came to the same conclusions as Senator Kennedy. Over the course of three or four years of life, Byron takes a job at an old folks' home talking to geezers and, for all practical purposes, he's turned on, tuned in, and dropping out. By the end he has long hair and a beard and is planning to go on a road trip to find out what's gone wrong in America, starting in New York, which one of the old boozers at the home called "a great combination of a sell-out freak show and an unattended resurrection." This old boozer should have been in The Hold Steady.

Of most interest to me is Mr. Humdinger, a cantankerous old man in the home who was something of a famous novelist in the 1920s, when he was known as a "philosopher of the people." He hasn't written anything in years and sneers at anyone who suggests he does, but on his 89th birthday he requests a local TV station come in so he can grant his first interview in years. To Byron, he says, "God invented man because he likes stories. And he invented dying because he likes his stories to have an ending. And sometimes he likes his stories to be like jokes. Sometimes he likes funny endings."  On TV, when asked by the announcer to "sum up his philosophy"and share some wisdom so that the viewers may "enrich their lives," he launches into a string of old cliches: "A penny saves is a penny earned. A stitch in time saves nine. An apple a day keeps the doctor away." Etc. Then he pauses, says "and don't play dead before you have to," and dies on camera.


Framing the whole book as transcriptions of Byron's sides of a conversation (mostly with Charlie, but a few with his parents, Charlie's parents, a phone operator, and an old person or two) is a prose form that takes some getting used to, and may not have been sustainable beyond the short (131 page) book. I can't imagine it being published today (and, yeah, there's quite a bit of swearing, though Byron stops short of the f bomb - "Swearing is like long hair," he says. "It doesn't mean a damn thing. It's what you're saying, while you're swearing, that matters. Sure. I'll try to stop swearing so damn much." People tend to lump 1970s books about guys who seem sort of like creeps (and narrate the book instead of being a bad boy love interest) in together as "problem novels," but the whole point of this blog is to point out just how interesting - and occasionally literary - those really got.

Something was definitely happening in the world of kid lit in the late 1960s and early 1970s; everyone seemed to have gotten the idea that kids' books and movies could be sort of avant garde. Look at the freaky sequence in A Boy Named Charlie Brown where Schroeder plays the second movement of the Pathetique Sonata. And then contrast it against the sappy Rod McKuen songs from the same movie ("maybe it's a kind of magic / only little boys can do / but seeing charlie smile / can make you stop a while / and just be glad you're you....and we are all a boy named charlie brown.")

Most attempts at being that artsy come across - like the McKuen song above - somewhere between profound and stupid, but even when they flop, they're often at least honorable flops. Don't Play Dead Before You Have To is no flop. It's not as Earth-shaking as some other books about juvenile delinquents who turn into teenage visionaries, but it's pretty neat. Some of Byron's philosophy about life, the world, and everything (which evolves a lot over the course of the book as he "turns on" a bit) are pretty damned fascinating. It begs the question of what Holden Caulfield would be like if he been born late enough to read On the Road and maybe listen to a few Doors albums and have his mind blown.

Far more so than any other book I can think of (except perhaps Suzuki Beane: A Lovable Little Hipster), kids a message that school is for idiots, and you should go get your own education -  find out about the world for yourself and don't take any crap from anyone. It's a very 1970 sort of message for a book to send, and resonated well enough to keep the book in print awhile; my copy is a fifth-printing and has a blurb from the New York Times on the cover, with another blurb from the St Louis Dispatch on the back saying it should be required reading for anyone over thirty.

Mai Wojciechowska won the Newberry Medal five years before this with Shadow of the Bull,  a book about bull fighting that I can only imagine must have been a lot different from this one. Nowadays you would practically HAVE to be a Newberry winner to get anyone to publish a book like this, and the world is poorer for it. Sure, there are PLENTY of books where old people help kids understand the world (often in the form of old hippy grandparents), but they never give advice like what you see here. It seems like the only people advising kids to challenge what came before and question old dogma these days are libertarians and conspiracy theorists.

1 comment:

  1. It would be interesting to contrast this with the same author's 1968 book TUNED OUT, which I took as basically an anti-drug novel. The main character's first experience with marijuana includes hallucinations, euphoria, paranoia, vomiting, and delusions. His brother, who uses more drugs, has his life fall apart.

    On a tangent, I love this author's note at the front of the book: "All the characters and situations in this novel are fictitious, but names of the author's friends have been used with their consent."