Black Maps carries this prologue by Milan Kundera:
It takes so little, so infinitely little, for a person to cross the border beyond which everything loses meaning: love, convictions, faith, history. Human life — and herein lies the secret — takes place in the immediate proximity of that border, even in direct contact with it; it is not miles away, but a fraction of an inch.
David Jauss’ collection of linked stories shares this theme of dis-connection, of dis-association within the mass of connection and association surrounding them that is everyday human life. To this end, the stories do not have nice, crisp endings that resolve the issues presented. Jauss uses his considerable writing talent and technique to support his theme. His stories stand on their own, make statements of hope and despair, are snapshots in not only time but also people’s lives; and, like those lives, these episodes are over, closed, but not quite resolved. The result is mystery and terror, shock and awe, for the characters and for ourselves: We know these characters, might even be one of them, we relate and get uncomfortable and we’re glad when the situations are closed. Yet we realize very quickly afterwards that the characters’ lives continue, and that history will indeed repeat itself, over and over and over again…and seems doomed to repeat itself forever.
Take for instance the first story in the collection, Torque. Here’s the opening sentence: (p. 1)
The day after his wife left him taking their three-year-old son with them, Larry Watkins took out his circular saw, attached the metal-cutting blade, and carefully sawed his 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood in half.
Instinctively we flinch, sure that we have a nut on our hands. Jauss certainly has our attention with this matter-of-fact opening (“the facts m’am, only the facts”). Buried beneath the talk of the Skil saw and Stanley measuring tape are gut-wrenching, life-altering events: His wife and son are gone, left him. In what would normally be soothing explanation, Jauss continues to stretch our sensibilities: (p.1)
It was not an impulsive or crazy act, as his neighbors might have supposed. He had spent almost four hours the day before making the proper measurements, drawing the cutting line with a magic marker, and chaining one bumper to the garage wall and the other to the Chevy so the two halves wouldn’t spring together when he cut the frame. And in a way, he had been planning this moment ever since 1985, when he came back to the US after two years of guard duty and beer drinking for Uncle Sam in Germany. To celebrate his release from the service, he and his buddy Spence had rented a limousine for an hour and cruised around Virginia Beach, drinking Scotch from the limo’s bar and looking at girls through the tinted glass. Spence was talking away about his plans: He was going to catch the next bus to Albany, marry his girl, and go to work at her father’s office supply store. Larry hadn’t given much thought to his future, so when Spence asked him what he was going to do when he got back to Minnesota, he said the first thing that came to his mind: “I’m gonna get me one of those limousines.”
This is one of the powers of Jauss’ writing: He is able to take common events and everyday objects and twist the tension out them right in front of our eyes. This guy is a guy like me, like you, guys like us. The situation is so common and presented as such that we almost forget that the man is or should be in misery. And how many times have we made a pledge or a promise in a drunken fit that haunts us (as if there any no other times)?
It is interesting to me too that Jauss lets us figure it out ourselves: He says Larry chained one end to the garage and the other to the Chevy “so the two halves wouldn’t spring together when he cut the frame.” A more common word for that action, known to all Weekend Warrior carpenters, is “bind.” So Jauss drags it out of us a little…but by his “author’s” reckoning, he has already stated the issues in plain language in the first sentence, so we shouldn’t be surprised. We are being intentionally manipulated by a skilled writer.
Jauss goes on to give us the story of Larry and his wife and son, as well as the history of Larry’s growing infatuation with limousines. We learn of the tension between Larry and his wife regarding this infatuation. Finally, the wife leaves and takes his son to her mother’s when Larry plans a family vacation around a trip to the limousine factory. This leaves Larry alone at home to ponder his fate. In a not-too-subtle move, Jauss introduces another character late in the story, Elizabeth, a slightly retarded girl from the neighborhood who is also inexplicably infatuated with the limo. Larry and Elizabeth strike up a friendship, endorsed by Elizabeth’s caretaking mother. Jauss wraps up Torque like this:
Toward the middle of August, a man came to serve divorce papers on Larry. He started up the walk, then heard strange noises coming from the garage. Crossing the yard to the driveway, he saw the rear end of a car sticking out of the garage. Then, as he reached the door, he saw that the car had been sawn in half and there were two people sitting in it. “What the hell?” he said. He called out Larry’s name, but Larry didn’t seem to notice; he just kept looking out the windshield at the garage wall. He was silent, but the woman in the back seat was jabbering in some strange language the process server couldn’t understand. But Larry seemed to understand. He nodded as she spoke, said something back to her, then turned the wheel carefully to the left, as if rounding a dangerous curve.
Larry and Elizabeth have not only found each other; they have completed their journey to the fringe of acceptable society. The contradiction is beautifully developed as Jauss sends a process server, a representative of law and “normal” social order, to the house, and lets us walk with him as he approaches the scene. We experience the process server’s vision as the scene expands and develops in front of him, as if we were seeing it for the first time. But we are not. We have seen this scene several times now, and the repetition gives it an importance and emphasis that jars us out of our sense of what we’d been told and already accepted and seen as “normal” for Larry. So we too walk up to that garage and see the sawn-in-two car and hear Elizabeth jabbering and see Larry taking the curve — “the dangerous curve” — as if for the first time, again. And this is where much of the power lies — the writing is so straight-forward and plain and common that we accept what we’re told all along. Yet what we’re being told is a story “on the border” of the black maps. We’re told a story of the border even as we cross it, making that dangerous curve ourselves with people that talk and act and live and breathe and have divorces and conflicts and strange friendships and neighbors just like us.
I must admit, knowing what little I know of David Jauss so far from my exposure to him at VCFA, I had two other reactions to Black Maps, especially to “Torque.” First, David did a lecture at this summer’s residency on the endings of Chekhov, and made a point of how Chekhov employed several different types of endings in his stories that were fine closings to the story told, but which seldom resolved anything or gave us much hope for the characters or situations presented. I believe David, like Chekhov did before him, is expressing his own sense of closings” versus “endings” through the stories in Black Maps.
Second, in the last paragraph of” Torque” especially, I sense the influence of Melville, whose “Bartleby the Scribner” has haunted me since my undergraduate schooling. You’ll recall that Bartley was a copier, a scribner in a law office, until one day he simply said, “I prefer not to.” His boss, the lawyer, is forced to deal with the consequences of Bartleby’s passivity (or indirect aggression, pick one) and ultimately has to have him removed from the law offices. Bartleby dies in debtor’s prison as a result of his simply giving up, and the lawyer questions whether what he did was right, and questions what his responsibility to a man like Bartleby truly is. To me “Torque” is Jauss’ “Bartleby the Scribner;” Larry is his Bartleby. Who does that leave as the lawyer questioning his role and responsibility in society? All of us readers. Hmmm.
This haunting theme, of those among us slipping slightly off the map, making us wonder who will be next, or saying famously, “There but for the love of god go I,” is sustained throughout Jauss’ Black Maps. “Freeze” is about a soldier in Vietnam who finds himself confronting his very green commanding officer. “Beautiful Ohio” is about a women that doesn’t have the self-confidence to make the right decision for herself, who is too afraid of disappointing someone else. “Firelight” is at once the story of a kid in the foster system, a couple still grieving for their dead child, and the devastating effects of abandonment on a single mother in the 1950s/1960s. “The Bigs,” in a nod of sorts to Ring Gardner, is about a bush league pitcher losing control of his life but, in a cruelty like Alzheimer’s, realizes what is happening to him even as he sacrifices his chance at a no-hitter: (pp. 54-55)
And I am still smiling when Parisi come in to take from me my no-hitter and make me a nobody who can not go to home or stay where he is without shame. I am holding the ball and everything have stop and I am so happy and I love everybody even Coach and the fans booing and Whitey Herzog who keep me from being in The Bigs so long and Antonio who steal my wife maybe. I love everybody so much I feel like I am dead and looking down on everybody from heaven, not a man anymore but an angel with no sadness or pain or anything, just love. But Coach, he take the ball away from me and give it to Parisi. He take the ball away, he take everything away, and I am standing there waiting and alone and there is no sign.
This story worked especially well for me, with its integration of baseball life and language into the slowly deteriorating life of a pitcher in his prime, literally on the very brink of a no-hitter, arguably the highest accomplishment in baseball for a pitcher, when he takes his tragic plunge. Jauss made a masterful choice to tell this story from the point of view and language of the pitcher, a foreigner (or more correctly, someone to whom English is a second language) so that the story also unfolds in agonizing fashion, just like the man’s personal life.
A story in this collection that I didn’t mention yet struck closest to home for me, however. The story is “Brutality.” The story starts with a husband and wife coming home from a party, when the man decides to tell the truth to his wife about his hunting past. “Brutality” opens like this: (p. 85)
It was late on a dark, moonless night, and they were driving home from a party at a friend’s house on the other side of the city. Although they had been married for almost twenty years, Richard still loved Susan very much and found her attractive. At the party, he’d glanced at her across the room, and the way she crossed her legs when she sat down made him desire her. Now he was anxious to get home so they could make love. He thought she must be feeling the same way, for her hand was resting on his thigh and she was looking at him while they talked.
I thought there was something stilted about this opening paragraph when I first read it, but I dismissed it thinking that maybe this was a story of an older time, sometime or someplace that feminism never touched or took hold in. At the party, the hosts’ little boy disrupts the party with a toy gun, and this leads Richard to perhaps inadvertently reveal his early love for guns on their drive home afterward, even though their own children were raised in a home with him and Susan where they didn’t even buy them toy guns. Susan asks more about Richard past, and he reveals a pretty violent childhood to her, for the first time.
Jauss ends “Brutality” like this:
Then they were out of words. They drove the last few blocks in silence, and when he had parked the car in their garage, they got out and went quietly into the house. Stepping softly so they wouldn’t wake their son, they went down the hall to their bedroom. There, they undressed slowly in the dark, then put on their pajamas, got into bed, and lay on their backs, breathing quietly. Susan’s hand was lying palm down on the sheet beside him, and he traced its small bones lightly with a fingertip. After a while, she moved her hand away. “Goodnight,” she said, and turned her back to him.
Richard lay there a long time, looking at the dark ceiling. He could tell by Susan’s breathing that she was still awake, but he knew she didn’t want to make love now, or even talk, so he didn’t say anything. But after a few more minutes, he couldn’t bear the silence anymore. Turning to her, he said, “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she answered.
But still she kept her back to him. He lay there on his side, facing her rigid back, awhile longer, until the distance between them was too much of an affront. Then he put his hand on her shoulder and, whispering her name, turned her beautiful body toward him.
There are several forms of brutality here: The undertone of the Vietnam War. The tension and conflict in their situation over letting children play with toy guns. The violence that Richard displayed when he was a boy that he had just told Susan about for the first time. But even more frightful is the unspoken violence and brutality of the last scene: Susan realizing that she didn’t know the man she had married. Her passive reaction of being silent, withdrawing (perhaps her only possible/available physical reaction?). The injustice Richard feels for himself as “the distance between them was too much of an affront.” His turning her over to him, not really her but “her beautiful body;” is it more or less cruel that he said her name? What bigger brutality is there than living with someone all your life that only sees you as an object, in physical terms, something less than a human, something almost animal-like? This in turn puts an even deeper twist to Richard’s history of violence toward animals, and gives me the creepy feeling of being trapped, like Susan no doubt is — worse now that she realizes her predicament. Jauss masterfully presents a front story about overt violence while intricately weaving a shadier, scarier story of mental anguish and brutality just beneath.
A few closing words on the last story, “Glossolaylia,” a story told in reminiscence of a boy whose father had a nervous breakdown but recovered, who is now a father himself. I had to look up the meaning of the title: “repetitive non-meaningful speech.” The turning point of the story is when the father, in schizophrenic crisis, asks the son to help him. The son, our narrator, processes the information that evening: (p. 138)
For the next half-hour or so, I stayed in the living room, listening to the droning sound of Dr. Lewis and my parents talking. I still didn’t know what had happened or why. All I knew was that my father was somebody else now, somebody I didn’t know. I tried to reconcile the man who used to read to me at night when my mother was too tired, the man who patiently taught me how to measure and cut plywood for a birdhouse, even the man whose cheeks twitched when he was angry at me and whose silences were suffocating, with the man I had just seen crouched like an animal on the kitchen floor babbling some incomprehensible language. But I couldn’t. And though I felt sorry for him and his suffering, I felt as much shame as sympathy. This is your father, I told myself. This is you when you’re older.
There is a lot going on in this paragraph, not the least of which is the punishment that comes when one slips across the border, something akin to a felony record for a moment of passion and crime. The son, in his attempted but unsuccessful reconciliation, recalls the good attributes of his father first, any one of which might be cause enough for redemption, then closes with negative conclusions never again to be shaken, with an ominous prediction for the future: “This is your father, I told myself. This is you when you’re older.” Jauss even carries his technique of “closings versus endings” across to his scene endings at times.
The father does recover, after a stay in the mental hospital, during which the boy discovers that his mother shielded him from the whole story: His father was stealing money from the shop, had been fired from his job, and had attempted suicide. The boy’s earlier prediction (“This is you when you’re older’) and his discovery of what really happened make the ending to this story even more disturbing. On the day he has his most positive experience with his father since the incident, a bland one-minute discussion about what to watch on TV, our narrator has this scene: (p. 154)
That night, though, unable to sleep, I got up and went into my son’s room. Standing there in the wan glow of his night light, I listened to him breathe for awhile, then quietly took down the railing we’d put on his bed to keep him from rolling off and hurting himself. Then I sat on the edge of the bed and began to stoke his soft, reddish-blonde hair. At first he didn’t wake, but his forehead wrinkled and he mumbled a little dream-sound.
I am not a religious man. I believe, as my father must have, the day he asked me to save him, that our children are our only salvation, their love our only redemption. And that night, when my son woke, frightened by the dark figure leaning over him, and started to cry, I picked him up and rocked him in my arms, comforting him as I would after a nightmare. “Don’t worry,” I told him over and over, until the words sounded as incomprehensible to me as they must have to him,”It’s only a dream. Everything’s going to be all right. Don’t worry.”
The repeated mention of “incomprehensible” here, a word used to describe his father’s schizophrenic incident long ago, is no accident on Jauss’ part. It adds a symmetry to “Grossolalia” that feels absolutely right, that emphasizes its structure and theme of history and generations repeating themselves. Further, think about “Grossolalia” and the first story of this collection, “Torque,” and the incomprehensible language of Elizabeth that only Larry the limo driver can understand: “Torque” and “Grossalalia” stand like bookends for Black Maps, completing, no, connecting the circle. Talk about supporting theme with structure, talk about endings….
Back to that last scene of the book, to “Grossolalia:” Imagine that despite all your work and hard effort (night light, railing), you can’t protect your children from hurt or harm. Imagine next being the cause of your child’s fear at any time — “the dark figure leaning over him” — which many of us have probably been a time or two, perhaps often; and the future looks ominous indeed.
Knowing all this: What are we to do? How are we to act? David Jauss isn’t going to tell us. He’s lead us to the water, to the river, to the border, in Black Maps, through his closings especially. Maybe that’s both the tragedy and the hope of it — there are no endings, no last chances, no resolutions, just life.
It’s our job to pick up where Jauss left off, where he closed but didn’t end the stories, and decide whether we will continue, whether we will drink the water or not.
POSTLUDE: OK, this “universal moment” stuff can stop any time… The day I finished this paper, I got my December 2009 Writer’s Chronicle. In it is an article by Frederick Reiken titled “The Legacy of Chekhov.” He should have had a copy of David Jauss’ Black Maps cover as a sidebar. Here it what he says about Chekhov’s impartial narration: “There is indeed a moral to be extracted…but you will note that the moral is not made explicit, is not stuffed down your throat, and that the lack of exposition or authorial judgment ultimately leaves it to the reader to ponder the story’s meaning, which is far more resonant and compelling…” (p. 32) On the ending of Checkhov’s “The Lady and the Dog,” Reiken said this: “Here you will note the absence of moral or moralistic judgment. You will note also that within this momentary resolution all the ambiguities and problems inherent in both the situation and the protagonist’s life remain and are carried beyond the borders [my emphasis] of the story. There is no resolution, per se. The ending announces only that a certain stage in both characters’ lives has ended and that a new stage is about to begin. As a result, the experience of reading this story is neither that of solving the problem or being taught a lesson. Rather, it is the simple feeling of intimacy with the situation in all its precisely grounded ambiguity..” (p. 28)
I rest my case.
Jauss, David. Black Maps. Amhearst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.