What’s up with the dead bodies?

Chekhov's Gun on Bandmix
Art credit: Chekhov’s Gun on Bandmix

In three of the five states I’ve read so far, a character in one of the state’s books finds a dead body beneath the surface of water: in the bayou in Alabama’s Train Whistle Guitar, in the Mississippi River in Arkansas’s “Ark of Bones;” and in the Pacific Ocean in California’s Cannery Row. This wouldn’t seem odd to me – dead bodies make for interesting stories, right? – except that in all three cases our protagonist happens upon the body, reacts or doesn’t react, and then the event disappears from the story. The characters take no action, the discoveries do not cause later trauma, and though I keep expecting the story to come back to it, the body is never referred to again beyond the scene in which the character finds it.

The first time this happened, when I read Albert Murray’s Train Whistle Guitar, I waited for the body to reemerge in the narrative, and when it didn’t, I was confused as to why it was there in the first place. When it happened again, in Henry Dumas’s “Ark of Bones,” the language of the discovery was eerily similar.

He seemed to be a white man, but you couldn’t really be certain about that either. All I could make out was that he was a dead man.- Albert Murray ¹

His body was so ate up by fish and crawdads that they couldn’t tell whether he was white or black. Just a dead man. – Henry Dumas ²

In both of these stories, the protagonists who happen upon the bodies are young African American boys, and in both cases, the author makes a point of telling us that the race of the dead man is indeterminable. In both cases the young boys leave the bodies and take no action; they find the corpses, note them, and the stories continue, influenced in no way that I could discern by the discoveries of the bodies.

Similarly, in Cannery Row, marine biologist Doc discovers a dead body trapped beneath a rocky ledge when he is on an octopus-collecting expedition at low tide. Unlike the Mississippi River bodies, this Pacific Ocean body is intact – a girl with hair that swirls with the ocean’s movements,  white faced and with eyes open – and Doc is momentarily traumatized. He staggers back to shore, gasps for air, and when a passerby asks if he’s okay, he stutters about the body, is too troubled to call the police himself – can the bystander please do it? – and the body never appears again in the story.

The scene in Cannery Row is awfully dramatic for us never to return to it. I would have been jarred by it without two other books already featuring floating corpses, but together with the Murray and Dumas bodies, Steinbeck’s deserted corpse – the third of its kind –  alerted me that perhaps I am missing something. Many writers know Chekhov’s rule:

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there. ³

All three of these writers – Murray, Dumas, Steinbeck – are accomplished authors who know what they are doing. And all three put dead bodies in their works. Why are those bodies there? Random corpses have appeared in 3 out of 15 books I’ve read since I began my Andrea Reads America project. Is this an American lit thing, and if so, what’s it all about?

In the Murray and Dumas stories the bodies may make a larger point about race: in death we are all the same, indistinguishable by the color of our skin. That is an important point that struck me about those passages, and one that I still carry with me, that we are all the same in death – why not in life, too? The corpses also reveal some things about place: their existence suggests a place of violence and murder, and the fact that the bodies have gone undiscovered indicates an isolated, rural setting.

The purpose of the Steinbeck body is not as clear to me. It plays an immediate role of putting Doc in a state of confusion and vulnerability, but beyond that I am at a loss. He does not reflect on his own mortality later, or at least not in a way that was obvious to me.

I am alert now to these bodies as I read my way across the US. Perhaps I won’t come across another; perhaps it’s just coincidence that three piled up at the beginning of my tour. I plan to keep a body count, though, and to read closely if I come across another corpse. Because to me, these corpses are like Chekhov’s gun: they are hanging there on the wall, why did they not go off?

Can you recall a similar story, with a dead body that is discovered and never discussed again? What are your thoughts on the purpose of these corpses?

¹ Murray, Albert. Train Whistle Guitar. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. 1974. Print.
² Dumas, Henry. Ark of Bones and Other Stories. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 1975. Print
³ Valentine, Bill T. Chekhov: The Silent Voice of Freedom. New York: Philosophical Library. 1987. Print.

White Girl Dancing

“At first (when she was not yet Miss Tee but Auntee) she was mostly the one who always came to cuddle, kiss, and oopdedoopdedoodle you saying some brown sugarboy lips and some sugarboy brownskin cheekbones and some brown sugarboy foreheadbone and some sugarboy brown righthand knockout knucklebone…” – Albert Murray

Until I really got into the cadence of Train Whistle Guitar, I felt like whitey out on the dance floor, unable to keep time, incapable of following Albert Murray’s rhythm. Like his characters, guitar player Luzana Cholly and pianist Stagolee Dupas, Murray beats and bobs with his prose, tapping out struts and riffs and tempos and rhythms that left me flailing, out of sync and out of time.

As I struggled through those first fifty pages or so, I pictured a brown-skinned, white-whiskered man, eyes closed, shaking his head to an internal beat that I could not hear. He extemporized, improvised, riffed rhymes and repetitions to a foot tapping, knee-slapping beat, and while I could feel a pulse there, I got lost in phrases I could not decipher:

“Me my name is Jack the Rabbit also because my home is also in the also and also of the briarpatch.”

What does that mean?! I puzzled over that sentence. I came back to it again and again. I worked at dissecting the “also in the also and also of” until my brain hurt. Finally I gave up on it, quit trying to figure its meaning, and surrendered to the rhythm of Murray’s phrasing. Once I did that, once I stopped trying so hard, once I stopped trying to be so cerebral, the tempo took me and I enjoyed the book for its purcussive pacing and delicious depictions. I savored his sentences, his descriptions of making love to a girl in the woods,

“What she mostly smelled like was green moss. But that first time it was willow branches then fig branches, then plum leaves. Sometimes it was sweetgum leaves plus sweetgum sap. And sometimes it was green pine needles plus pine trunk bark plus terpentine-box resin. But mainly it was live oak twigs which she chewed plus Spanish moss which she used to make a ground pallet.”

of parts of speech,

“A preposition is a relationship; and conjunction is membership; and interjection is the spirit of energy.” (!!)

of the coastal forest,

“You could smell the mid-May woods up the slope behind us then, the late late dogwoods, the early honey-suckles, and the warm earth-plus-green smell of the pre-summer undergrowth.”

and the bayou,

“We were still in the bayou country, and beyond the train-smell there was the sour-sweet snakey smell of the swamp-land.”

of woodpeckers,

“Woodpeckers always sounded as if they were out in the open in the very brightest of the sunshine.”

and of course, the jook joint as young Scooter saw it from his hidden perch in a tree:

“The light near the piano was bright enough for you to see them dancing and see Claiborne Williams at the keyboard with his hat cocked to the left and his wide silk four-in-hand tie flipped back over his right shoulder, spanking and tickling his kind of blues.”

When I finished reading Train Whistle Guitar, I felt flustered by my initial inability to jibe with Murray’s swing, and I didn’t think I liked the book all that well. Despite two index card bookmarks I filled with quotes, I only gave it three stars on Goodreads, writing in my review that I couldn’t get over our rhythmic differences. Train Whistle Guitar is one of those books – you know the kind – that when I first finished it, I only thought it was okay. But it has caught me, like a complex tune that you’re not sure you like the first time you hear it, and my mind keeps coming back to it.

And the more my mind comes back to it, the more I remember his beautiful descriptions of brown skin –

honey brown finelegged frizzly headed woman

sugarboy brownskin

chocolate brown dimples

as cinnamon-bark brown as was the cinnamon-brown bark she was forever chewing and smelling like

May your Anne Tee have some pretty please help herself to some of all this yum yum sugar and all this yum yum honey plus all this buster brownskin pudding and pie.

  • and my toe taps, til I feel like I could close my eyes, and shake my head, and groove in a smoky jook joint, “doing the shimmieshewobble and the messaround.”  The more I hear Murray’s phrases, the more I relish them, just like those complex tunes that grow on you even if you’re not sure you liked them the first time, and I’ll turn him up and sing even if I don’t know all the words, and dance even if I look like whitey out on the dance floor.

I have since upgraded my Goodreads review to 4 stars. I keep thinking of things I loved about this book. Another favorite aspect was Murray’s deep respect for his characters, revealed through his tender descriptions of brown skin. 

This was originally published December 11, 2013 on Andrea Badgley’s Butterfly Mind.