Fixing The Trimmer From The Redwood Coast Review
I went to Schreiner’s Small Engine Repair because my weed whacker disappeared last summer in the tall grass. I’d managed finally to hunt the monster down, but couldn’t get it to start – because it was dead. “The carburetor’s corroded, and the engine’s full of water,” said Merle Schreiner, who owns the shop and who, two years ago, sold me the machine, which he calls a “trimmer.”
My first trimmer – a baby Echo – also came from Merle. He taught me how to use the machine: how to cold start it with the choke, how to add the bottle of two-stroke engine oil to the gallon of gas, how to wind the polymer trimmer line through the head, how to bump the head with the engine running to feed out more line.
One thing I’ve always liked about Merle is the way he just poured out last year’s gas-oil mix into a mayonnaise jar. Most people don’t want to touch your old gas. I’ve seen men covered in motor oil put both hands up to fend off a gas can with a little of last year’s mix swirling around the bottom. “That’s toxic waste,” they say. “You have to dispose of it in accordance with the laws of the State of California.” But Merle is not a prima donna. His skin is deeply and permanently tanned, like a hide. He wears yellow-tinted glasses like a hunter might, in the fog at dawn. If he isn’t in the shop you ring a buzzer on the door, or go find him at the work sink outside with his wetsuit peeled down around his waist, cleaning a fish or pounding out his abalone catch.
Another nice thing about Merle: He never assumed, just because I knew nothing about gas-powered engines, that I couldn’t learn. He didn’t make me feel more stupid than I already felt about losing track of the weed whacker in the tall grass. He didn’t judge – and besides, he had the new models polished and ready near a wall of photographs of Merle and his wife, Pat, posing with shotguns and large game animals. But he didn’t try hard to sell me one.
I said, “Maybe I should just pay someone to do the weedwhacking this year. ”
“They’ll charge you forty dollars an hour,” he said. “The trimmer’s two-nineteen.”
I had, prophetically or prophylactically, brought along the original baby Echo just in case. Merle looked it over, poured in some fresh gas mix, blew dust off the choke with a hiss of pressurized air from a hose. He dabbed a bit of oil on the carburetor. He fired up the machine and it roared. I tried it myself to be sure.
“It feels a little small after the big one,” I said.
“Yup,” he said.
I bought a bottle of two-stroke oil and asked Merle what I owed him. “Give me five bucks,” he said.
I carried the baby Echo out to my car. (The big trimmer wasn’t worth fixing, but I could leave it if I wanted.) My dog’s head poked out the open window. Merle asked about the dog, what kind, how old. He used to have a shepherd he took hunting until its back went out, retrieving ducks. He scratched my dog’s ear. I asked if he’d done any fishing lately. “My wife and I are taking just one trip this year,” he said. “To Michigan. We’re fishing for trophy muskie on Lake Sinclair. Usually we go hunting.”
“I saw the pictures on the walls of your shop. Are those African animals?”
“Some are from Africa,” he said. “Some are from New Zealand, Australia, Scotland, Mexico, Alaska. We added a room to the house a few years ago – we call it the museum. Are you interested in big game?”
We walked down the path to the back door of Merle’s house; the ground glittered with abalone and mussel shells. We walked through the living room, where two huge sailfish in brilliant blues and yellows hung over two couches arranged in front of the woodstove.
We walked from one room into another world. Seventy heads lined the walls. Mule deer and whitetail deer, horned sheep from Hawaii, Scotland and New Zealand. (New Zealand imported all its mammals from Asia, Britain and the Himalayas, Merle said.) One wall held African heads – a wildebeest, a warthog, and various kinds of antelope with elegant horns in various configurations. Some grew like steeples; others like corkscrews. Merle pointed out impalas, an eland, a blesbok with four knobby horns splayed across the head like a hand of fingers, a waterbuck, a steenbok, a red lechwe, an oryx, a red hartebeest, a bushbuck. He had a zebra – the rare, endangered kind – arranged on a pedestal in what is I think is called a three-quarter pose, head and shoulders, as well as a hide on the wall from the other, more common kind of zebra with mellower, muddier stripes.
An immense cape buffalo, presented as head and shoulders, seemed so freshly and radiantly preserved that I could distinguish each pore on the black nose, which looked wet. Cape buffalo are the most dangerous of the big game animals taken by hunters on foot. Merle remembered killing him: “He came down to drink. I took one shot, under the haunch here – right through the heart.” One bullet through the heart was also the way he killed his American bison (2,000 pounds), whose wooly head and chest exploded through the drywall just above a whole preserved Florida alligator on the floor.
The animals, their horns and hides fresh and intact above expressively posed armatures, looked nothing like taxidermy I’d seen before – the hoary old black bear I used to pat as a child visiting the Boston Museum of Science in Boston, which remained in place thirty-five years later, when my own kids reached out their sticky paws in terror and awe.
The Schreiners’ collection had grown beyond the original organizing principles. A black bear rug and another pelt on the wall looked as glossy as if they’d just been brushed with boar bristles. A kangaroo pelt hung from an Australian boomerang next to a black moose from Alaska. On a table in the center of the room stood an elk (head and chest) with the largest rack I’d ever seen. On a shelf along another wall stood a javelina, a small, thin animal like a baby boar. Merle had read in a book that this animal is a “peccary” – not a pig, but piglike, with porklike flesh. “Go figure that out,” he said.
He’d arranged the peccary among several kinds of wild boar, and another antelope-like animal from Mexico whose flesh was reputedly so tough that no one could eat it. But Merle killed this one and brought it home on a bed of dry ice. He and Pat pounded the meat and ground it up, then ground it up again. Still inedible. They ground the meat a third time, added a little pork and made sausages and meatballs.Delicious. He described the rabbits they caught on the hunt in New Zealand, which Pat fried, or braised with a can of beer. He showed me the record books, piled up on a coffee table made from the hind legs of the cape buffalo with the tail of a warthog, slips of paper marking the pages where Pat and Merle’s trophies were recorded. He described the complexities of permits and customs, the sale or gift of the meat to local people or, where possible, its transport home; he spoke of thinning herds and endangered species; he spoke with deep understanding of dry ice, and with admiration for his taxidermist in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Ducks flew along the tops of the windows, their wings spread full. The shells of two immense sea-turtles presented their quincunx patterns. A bobcat reached a frozen paw into a bird’s nest near the ceiling and found an egg. Eyes followed you everywhere – brown and, of course, glassy. Merle’s eyes, explaining all this, were soft and alive.
“What will you do with the animals, you know, in the future?” I asked.
“Well, we’ve thought that when we’re gone, maybe they could stay here in a big game museum in Gualala.”
Through Merle’s yellow glasses I saw the existential emptiness that lies just behind any great passion, even the quintessential primal struggle, even the passion of bloodlust: nothing lasts; intensity, which is everything, can only be experienced and repeated; it cannot be maintained.
“Some people think it’s terrible,” he said.
“Well,” I said, “Not me.”
Someone rang the bell up at the shop.
At home I surveyed the terrain, a mix of stubborn, mostly volunteer grasses five feet high growing over half an acre and sloping steeply down the mountainside into tangles of huckleberry and salal. Weedwhacking such overgrowth with my baby Echo was like cleaning the Augean stables with a pooper scooper. The enormity of the task roused something inside me. The job was impossible; I wanted to do it myself. Better still if the yard were twice as large, the grass twice as tall, if I possessed nothing but a scythe. It sounds dramatic: I wanted to live. I put on my goggles, and waded into the wild.
I met the radical journalist Alexander Cockburn in 1991, while writing for the Anderson Valley Advertiser, the anarcho-syndicalist weekly in Boonville, California. The masthead quoted Joseph Pulitzer: “Newspapers should have no friends.” Alex had called the AVA “The best newspaper in America.” Another time he called it “the only newspaper in America.” Grand rhetorical gestures best expressed what he called “the moral truth.”
He didn’t use a computer on principle – I never knew exactly what principle –but offered me a job to serve that function. Not exactly a Luddite, he loved his fax machine to the point where he carried it almost everywhere in his arms. He insisted I buy the same model from a particular person at a company in New York; his loyalties were fierce. Our work began around 7 a.m. or sometimes 3 p.m. or occasionally at 3 a.m. Alex approached deadlines with cheerful intensity. He typed up a column, then faxed it over for me to “punch in” on my Apple 170. His lively scrawl and fresh revisions kept rolling through – he was a tireless and eloquent reviser. He never quite wrote the stories everyone else was talking about. “You have to be two weeks ahead,” he advised.
Alex had nothing but contempt for my faddish laptop, which, in the days before e-mail or Apple Care, served without complaint for seven years. Alex’s fax, with its unwieldy rolls of thermal paper, lasted, too. The fax and the Apple 170 are today the only functioning – yet useless - electronics in my arsenal.
His advice to a young writer strongly emphasized thrift. “Never, ever show your wallet,” he told me once. He advocated sleeping in one’s vehicle instead of squandering money on expensive (or cheap) hotels. He described the occasional problem of lunch with a hostile interviewer on an expense account: “If I order from the bottom of the menu, I’m a dessicated reptile, and if I have the lobster salad I’m a hypocritical elitist.” So what did he choose? Gentle exasperation: “Lobster salad.”
Bruce Anderson, the editor of the AVA, recalled a story Alex told him about money: Alex’s father, the novelist Claud Cockburn, used to throw all the household bills into a box. Once a month he’d pull out three or four and pay them. Alex followed this model. He admired his father’s modus vivendi; in fact, his bio often noted his father-the-novelist before his own achievements. Alex even wrote a novel, once – about chess – but though he had the novelist’s sense of story and the timing of a comic, his form was really the diatribe.
R.W. Apple of the New York Times was a “swag-bellied gourmandizer of international repute.” Richard Nixon, whom he called the “greenest” president, “understood that ‘the environment’ could bring together every dreamer green enough to impale an avocado seed on a toothpick and raise it up in the thin light of the Me Decade.”
I saw him occasionally until a few years ago. Several times he stopped overnight in Point Arena en route to Fort Bragg or Boonville. Once he drove down our mile and a half of unmarked dirt road in a 1959 Nash Rambler without directions, cell phone or GPS, in a torrential rainstorm with lightning. He simply arrived. When I asked how he found us, he held up a flashlight: “I had a torch.” He brought many bottles of Minervois, which we drank at dinner, and his own Turkish coffee pot, with which he brewed a muddy broth in the morning. He described improvements to his property in Petrolia – a tower, frescoes, horses, his stable of vintage cars. He discoursed on the aesthetic crime of heavy beam construction (one of his favorite books was Edith Wharton’s manual of interior decoration The Decoration of Houses), the best preparation for salt cod, Christopher Hitchens, the state of the empire. In the morning he rushed downstairs with my college art history text under his arm and gently critiqued my marginal notes.
Moments before he drove off the final time he discovered a leak in the Rambler’s radiator, but the matter didn’t faze him. On the loopy back roads of Humboldt and Mendocino Counties Alex was occasionally seen standing beside some steaming automobile with the hood up or the gas tank empty, waving down random motorists. This manic polemicist who so relished his enemies trusted completely in the kindness of strangers.
Writing Under the Influence John Updike taught me everything I knew about sex before the seventh grade. A desolate January evening in 1972, an island off the coast of Maine, the usual frigid darkness already fallen over town: I’m sitting in a Windsor chair in the Jesup Memorial Library reading Couples, my hair still wet from swim team practice at the YMCA next door. The librarian calls my mother at home. Carolyn is reading adult materials, filthy books. Should she put a stop to it? I remember only being unwilling to leave the book, the chair, the library, to return from the ineffable almost erogenous zone where reading (and especially Updike) took me.
Updike’s kind of realist fiction – besotted with the junk material of America, the ugliness rendered gorgeous but also recognizable – formed a perfect objective correlative for the kind of life-energy and freedom I yearned for, qualities I associated with literature, which I associated with men. I don’t remember reading women before college, when a professor turned me onto Joan Didion. Her sexless prose, her chilly, neurotic habits of mind, her perfect pitch, opened worlds to me. But it was almost too late. I was like a dog tied up out back on a chain for years before being brought into the family fold. Once in the door, I had bad habits – chewed, yipped. Before Didion, my reading for pleasure (by which I mean self-recognition and self-invention) was all E.B. White, John Cheever, J. D. Salinger, Joseph Mitchell, Henry Miller, John O’Hara, James Baldwin, Theodore Dreiser, Richard Yates, Richard Wright, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Philip Roth and, of course, Updike.
These spiritual fathers – heroes and enemies – ruined me early. They’re old or dead now; Salinger went this January – Updike, almost exactly a year before. How I miss the effete, prolific, claustrophobic, asthmatic, stuttering, psoriatic Updike! Re-reading recently “The Disposable Rocket,” a bold essay reasserting old saws about the differences between men and women – biology, destiny, the familiar trajectory of heterosexuality – made me cringe with familiar irritation and envy. There’s nothing in “The Disposable Rocket” I haven’t heard before – the entitlement, the argument that takes its conclusion for granted at the outset, the witty euphemisms that polished New Englanders use to lubricate direct and blunt speech and which Updike permits himself with such impertinences as: “From the standpoint of reproduction, the male body is a delivery system, and the female is a mazy device for retention. Once the delivery is made, men feel a faint but distinct falling-off of interest. Yet against the enduring heroics of birth and nurture should be set the male’s superhuman frenzy to deliver his goods: he vaults walls, skips sleep, risks wallet, health, and his political future all to ram home his seed into the gut of the chosen woman.”
The delicate through-line of woman-revulsion famously runs through Updike like a red line through a poisoned finger: The woman is a “mazy device”; bearing children are “enduring heroics”; the literal upshot of human sexuality is rammed “home” in the woman’s “gut.”
Psychosexually, Updike is all bad news. But because none of the women in Updike are real, our empathy remains with the hero, the alter-author. When I say “we” I don’t mean that we all empathize with Updike, only that the books are structured this way. In the opening scenes of Memoirs of the Ford Administration, the Updike-like narrator takes a break from writing his book about Buchanan to have sex with his mistress. Here he is after the ecstasy and the denouement: “I itched to buck, to toss off this itchy incubus moistly riding my back…I should be correcting term papers or working at my book, my precious nagging hopeless book.” It’s beautiful – Updike’s great gift – this soulful cruelty, this perfect existential freedom (maybe even compulsion) within formal discourse to say absolutely anything, well. (The taunt of an early critic – that Updike writes beautifully but has nothing to say – seems to me beside the point. The point of novels is not information but atmosphere; atmosphere is how the novel “says,” and Updike’s atmosphere is everywhere on his pages, as if testosterone were his ink.)
In “The Disposable Rocket” Updike quotes Byron in Don Juan, comparing the daily burden of shaving to the trouble of childbirth – an old joke. This sense of men’s entitlement to degrade women’s experience while simultaneously demanding their approval reminds me, rather fondly, of my grandfather, who used to regale his wife, my Nana, at breakfast with his light verse. Here’s an example:
Let’s weigh the burdens dealt each sex –
The ‘Who fares worse?’ which us perplex;
Who has the harder earthly fate,
The husband or his sleek-cheeked mate?
Agreed, the lady has to bear
The borning of the son and heir,
Nine months of cumbersome expansion
Before son enters earthly mansion;
That’s brief and ends in joyous cry.
‘How cute the cuddly little guy!’
True, that is the woman’s cross to bear.
But wait: she has no facial hair.
Our job was to witness him, to laugh with him, to admire him – but also to accede to the force of his arguments, to follow his own example and not take ourselves too seriously. To parse the poem at all was to ruin it, to betray a mean-spirited, man-bashing feminism. To be silent was to urge him on in his production of couplets, croakers (“I’m dying, he croaked”), limericks, illustrated clichés, his annual Christmas poem, light productions that in fact meant so much to him – an unstoppable flow of modest literary ambition. The stuff ran freely through him, like chlorinated water from a tap: almost benign, almost wholesome.
He produced and recited daily for so long that Nana stopped listening until finally, in her nineties, she stopped hearing entirely. Once during a visit I came downstairs into the dining room to find Nana and my grandfather sitting at opposite ends of the French-polished mahogany table, tucking into their cereal. Their silver spoons ticked against the chipped Deruta bowls which Nana would, after breakfast, rinse and tuck into the into the dishwasher and which Gr. would remove again before lunch, wipe, unwashed, and put away. (He had no use for any technology but the radio that brought him the Red Sox and the monaural turntable on which he played his old Mabel Mercer records.) They sat across from each other in a deep silence of their own. Around them the air trembled with the high pitched screech of the smoke detector, which had gone off over some sizzling bacon.
They’re both dead now. Nana cleaned up after herself – left nothing personal, no surprise stash of love letters bound in ribbons, no diary. I’m the executrix (his word), of my grandfather’s literary effects, which consist largely of multiple copies of his verses and lighter fare – poignant purple pages, mimeographed and stapled, held together by rubber bands. One volume is called “Hid Heart on Sleeve”; another, “Elbow Patches.” They form a peculiar oeuvre for a man who could recite most of Edwin Arlington Robinson and Emily Dickinson and much of Shakespeare by heart, and I cannot stand to read them.
Once I loaded the whole stash into a box to take to the recycling center – and then drove around for a year before I put the box back in my office with the rest of his artifacts – his letters, his articles in the Independent School Bulletin, his six hundred watercolors.
A poet friend, S., and I used to debate whether Roth or Updike was the better writer. (S. preferred Roth for being Jewish and presumably earthier, and always referred to the other as John Fucking Updike as a comment on his almost mechanical rate of production.) We argued; once S. threw me out of his house when I compared Updike to Henry Miller (both Lutheran-bred, obsessed by and sparklingly articulate about the gritty materials of sex). S. worshipped Roth, and also Henry Miller and Bukowski and dared me, really, to take offense at passages like the one in which Miller compares late-night intercourse with a prostitute to sex with “a milkshake.”
Updike is no less crude than Miller, in his way. In the mid-section of his memoir Self-Consciousness, he describes in the most provoking terms possible his contempt for his wife’s and all his literary friends’ anti-Vietnam-war activity and antigovernment idealism, which he despises as clubby and elitist, and which he rebels against by voting for Nixon. The scene culminates as he masturbates his wife’s best friend through her ski pants in the backseat of a car while his lefty wife (the precise incarnation of half his readers) natters on about liberal politics. After the episode, Updike feels free of certain easy allegiances, solitary and redeemed.
S. thought such scenes from Miller and Updike must offend me “as a woman,” imagining, I suppose, that I would identify with the prostitute or the wife as opposed to the central character, the alter-Miller or Updike, whose sensibility lives at the center of the scene. There’s no such thing, really, as a “realist novel” or a “female reader” – or there ought not to be. Like most “African-American poets,” or “Southern Gothic” fiction writers, or, say, transgender memoirists of Lebanese extraction, I’d prefer to read and write freely, unencumbered by limiting adjectives.
Roth and Updike always seemed to me like false opposites, two sides of one coin, set up as binaries to thwart the opposition – women, people of color, working class people who bang at the gates – echoing the similar false opposites of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. (F: “The rich are different from you and me.” H: “Yes, they have more money.”)
While S. & I wasted our evenings arguing about whether Roth or Updike had produced the more quintessential American novel, nailed it – Roth and Updike were essentially conversing amiably with each other, sparring and feinting, as if, in the end, the American novel belonged to one maternally smothered, privileged, precocious, heterosexually hyperactive male imagination or the other, as if the question were whether authentic American experience was more WASP-ish or Jewish. (Updike, born humbly in Pennsylvania Dutch country, was not a traditional WASP, and did not feel himself to be one, though he came early on to embody that animal in speech and manner.) He twice channeled a fictional Roth: Bech: A Book and Bech is Back – but the truth is that neither Updike nor Roth has written completely convincingly about anyone but versions of themselves. Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom is a kind of exception, but only in that he’s downmarket middle class - a car salesman. Otherwise, he’s just like Updike: morally naïve, oppressed by domestic responsibilities, free and at home on the range of America. Roth never really gets into the mind of The Breast of that eponymous book or into the woman at the center of the awful sequel, The Dying Animal; it’s always been hard for him to get into the mind of anyone who has much of a bosom. His best, most brilliant creation is Philip Roth, or versions of Roth, in early, hilarious caricatures such as Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint through the brilliant self-indulgences of the Zuckerman novels to the ambitious, competitive social novels, such as American Pastoral and I Married a Communist. The Roth vs. Updike argument is really about sensibility. It’s about the tone in which American men of a certain generation seduce their women and live their lives; it’s about the color of their conscience, and how they strive.
I was ruined early by reading, hardened into a certain shape that was finally, seismically shocked and broken open by Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, Grace Paley, Jean Rhys, Alice Munro, Elizabeth Hardwick, Elizabeth Bishop, Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick, bell hooks, Lydia Davis, Judith Butler, and Mary Gaitskill, all writers who gave me my first ideas about what it might mean to write about matters of the world, to write the kind of book I hadn’t read yet. But it was Updike who taught me first in the Jesup reading room as I bent my chlorinated head over those pornographically thrilling, anxiety-riddled and woman-fearing pages, You can say anything. There is nothing you can’t say.