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.

The authors’ original words do their work more justice than any book review I write, and when grouped together, the quotes become atmospheric of the state they are set in. I hope you enjoy this addition of a “Favorite Quotes” series to my Andrea Reads America coverage.

The Dawn PatrolFrom The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

“Boone believes that a wave is God’s tangible message that all great things in life are free.”

“Hawaiians taught us to surf… we sent people over there with Bibles, and they sent guys back with boards. The Hawaiians sure got the shitty end of that stick.”

“‘Like, the moana was epic tasty this sesh and I slid over the ax of this gnarler and just foffed, totally shredded it, and I’m still amped from the ocean hit, so my bad, brah.'”

“He and Boone sit and look at the waves together. Boone doesn’t rush things. He knows his friend is working through it. And the ocean never gets boring – it’s always the same and always different.”

“There are days when that drive along the 101 is so beautiful, it will break your fucking heart. When you look out the window and the sun is painting masterpieces on the water…”

“Waves are smacking the pilings beneath Crystal Pier. The ocean feels heavy, swollen, pregnant with promise.”

Parable of the SowerFrom The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

“The universe is God’s self-portrait.”

“Still raining… Steady drizzle, and occasional heavy showers all day. All day. So different and beautiful. I’ve never felt so overwhelmed by water.”

“It’s hard to believe any household once had three cars, and gas fueled cars at that.”

“How is it that we had never established an outside meeting place – somewhere where the family could reunite after disaster.”

“I worked my way toward the lemon tree. When I reached it, heavy with little green lemons, I hunted for any with even a hint of paling, of yellow.”

“Kindness eases change.”

“So many people hoping for so much up there where it still rains every year, and an uneducated person might still get a job that pays in money instead of beans, water, potatoes, and maybe a floor to sleep on.”

“Water stations are dangerous places. People going in have money. People coming out have water. Which is as good as money.”

Cannery Row by John SteinbeckFrom Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

“Through the back door comes the smell of kelp and barnacles when the tide is out and the smell of salt and spray when the tide is in.”

“Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses…”

“The whole street rumbles and groans and screams and rattles while the silver rivers of fish pour in out of the boats and the boats rise higher and higher in the water until they are empty.”

“Lee’s mouth was full and benevolent and the flash of gold when he smiled was rich and warm.”

“Monterey was not a town to let dishonor come to a literary man.”

“The sun came up and shook the night chill out of the air the way you’d shake a rug.”

“If a man ordered a beer milk shake, he thought, he’d better do it in a town where he wasn’t known.”

“The new [hitchhikers] try to pay for their ride by being interesting.”

“Financial bitterness could not eat too deeply into Mack and the boys, for they were not mercantile men.”

“It was the hour of the pearl. Lee Chong brought his garbage cans out to the curb. The bouncer stood on the porch of the Bear Flag and scratched his stomach.”

“I’m sick of pretending everything. For once I’d like to have it real – just for once.”

“The nature of parties has been imperfectly studied.”

“The cops didn’t find anything. But the party was sitting in the dark giggling happily and drinking wine.”


Andrea Reads America: California

Andrea Reads America California Book Map
Andrea Reads America: California

California. I don’t think I stopped grinning when I got to California after reading wintry Alaska, then dry Arizona, then dusty Arkansas. I needed The Golden State for a little R&R. California’s got coasts and mountains, sunshine and sea air, artists, writers, actors, bums, train-hoppers, redwoods, vineyards, canneries, marine biologists, beautiful blondes with perfect straight teeth, surfers, smugglers, avocados and strawberries and oranges and lemons, and immigrant populations from China and Japan and Mexico. It is a diverse state, shiny and new and full of hope: a reading dream come true for me, the American dream come true for others, false hope for many, and hard work for everyone but the bums.

The books I selected for my project were a tiny sampling from the deep pool of California-set titles by California authors. The experience of reading this state was a luxury, like sitting by a glittering pool with a frozen daquiri and a stack of books on the lounge chair next to me. There was so much author diversity – men, women, black, white, Hispanic, Chinese-American, Indian-American, Japanese-American – I kicked back and read California for weeks. There is surf, there are freeloaders, there are migrant workers and mail order brides; there is an imagined future of what happens after the gluttony bubble bursts. And I loved every second of it.

California was a fun ride.

The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow book cover on andreareadsamerica.comNovel: The Dawn Patrol
Author: Don Winslow, lives San Diego, CA
Setting: 2000s Pacific Beach, CA
Categories: Mystery, Crime drama

Published in 2008 and set in modern day Pacific Beach, California, The Dawn Patrol was everything I wanted from a California read: waves, water, hilarious surf lingo, characters with names like High Tide and Cheerful, a murder, page-turning suspense, a fast pace, and the best scenery I could have asked for. For the first time so far on my Andrea Reads America journey, I didn’t want to just read about a place, I wanted to be there.

There are days when that drive along the 101 is so beautiful, it will break your fucking heart. When you look out the window and the sun is painting masterpieces on the water…

The Dawn Patrol are a group of six surfers who are a cop, a lifeguard Love God, a giant Samoan who works for Sand Diego’s public works department, a kid named Hang Twelve, a soon-to-be pro-surfer “California girl,” and Boone Daniels, a private investigator and the hero of our story. The Dawn Patrol gathers on the waves every morning to surf before they start their jobs in the real world. They are as tight as family, and all play roles in this well-told, perfectly paced mystery that goes deeper than the original crime of a stripper’s murder. As is always the case in a decent mystery series, our P.I. Boone Daniels has depth and is haunted by past mistakes: the child molestor that got away.

The Dawn Patrol, in addition to plopping me beachside among surfers in sunny California, also gave me a great story with characters I came to love. So far there is only one more book in the Boone Daniels series. I hope Winslow plans to write more.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler book cover on andreareadsamerica.comNovel: Parable of the Sower
Author: Octavia Butler, born 1947 in Pasadena, California
Setting: 2025 near Los Angeles, California
Categories: Speculative fiction, Dystopian fiction, Afrofuturism

Parable of the Sower, set in 2024-2027 Los Angeles, California, is the story of Lauren, the hyperempathetic daughter of a preacher (she feels others’ physical pain, often to the point of debilitation). The United States as we know it has collapsed into near anarchy as rain no longer falls in many regions, cars are abandoned because fuel is unaffordable, drugs that make people want to burn and kill are rampant, and middle-class families live inside walled communities to protect themselves from the chaos outside.

Even as a preteen Lauren sees her family’s walled life as unsustainable, and the God her father follows is not the god she believes in. She sees that change will come – big changes where she will need to know how to live off the land and protect herself with guns – and when her community’s wall is breached and her neighborhood is burned to the ground, she is thrust into the outside world where she knew she would one day end up, and where she must now survive.

Though, like Butler, Lauren is an African American girl growing up in a mixed race neighborhood, Butler does not write about race as if it were a central issue in this book; race is often little more than a descriptor or a side note. However, whereas most science fiction casts a Caucasian male in the hero role, Butler casts a young black woman: rather than pontificating about race issues, Butler embeds an African American leader in her story and leaves it at that. I liked that aspect, that there isn’t a lot of explaining or reasoning that or why the heroine is black: she just is. On with the story.

Throughout the novel, despite the misery and seeming hopelessness, Butler offers a different future through Lauren’s resourcefulness and in the less populated regions of northern California, Oregon, Washington, and Canada:

So many people hoping for so much up there where it still rains every year, and an uneducated person might still get a job that pays in money instead of beans, water, potatoes, and maybe a floor to sleep in.

It was strange to visit Highway 101 and other California landmarks, which were portrayed as idyllic in other books, through Parable of the Sower‘s lens of violence and chaos, but that’s what dystopian fiction does: it jars us. It provides an imagined future as a cautionary tale. It makes us think about the world as we know it, and imagine it as it might one day be, and maybe even inspire us to make changes in our lives to prevent the imagined chaos from happening.

For more on Parable of the Sower, please see A dystopian California: not unimaginable.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck book cover  on andreareadsamerica.comNovel: Cannery Row
Author: John Steinbeck, born 1902, Salinas, California
Setting: 1930s Monterey, California
Categories: Literary Fiction

Cannery Row, set during the Great Depression, is a surprisingly (and subtly) funny character sketch of the rundown community along the strip of sardine canneries in Monterey, California. From the Chinese grocer, Lee Chong, to the specimen-collecting Doc, to the bums Mack and the boys at the flophouse, to Dora and the girls at the neighborhood brothel, to the tomcats and freed frogs and lonely gopher without a mate, the inhabitants of Cannery Row – along with the smell of the tides, the whang of rocks thrown against corrugated metal, and the pearly light of the quiet mornings before each day’s antics begin – exhibit the personality of a place through both its people and its atmosphere. Steinbeck has captured and characterized place brilliantly in this way and has shown a California different from all the other books I’ve read. The only similar portrayal was Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, but Kerouac’s focus was human characters while Steinbeck’s aim was to characterize Cannery Row, the place, through its residents.

I was looking forward to California for the excuse to read a Steinbeck I haven’t yet read. Cannery Row did not disappoint. Steinbeck’s sentences had me reaching for my pen and notebook nearly every page to record his genius lines; his prose is rhythmic and beautiful:

Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses…

There is something about Steinbeck that moves me. He writes close to the earth and deep into our humanness, and he is able to evoke an atmosphere that satisfies my hunger for a sense of place, scratches my itch for exploring our humanity – our eccentricities and foibles, our kindnesses and will to keep trying – and that asks the big questions, like how do we go on in the face of disappointment and failure, and what would a beer milk shake taste like?

For more on Cannery Row, please see Steinbeck, Steinbeck, he’s my man.

For Further Reading in California

Books I have read and can recommend:
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
Mistress of the Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Lê Thi Diem Thúy
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson
Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse
Goodbye to All That by Margot Candela
Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien
Love and War in California by Oakley Hall

I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.