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.

Arkansas woes, post-Goldfinch spiral, and Henry Dumas is my savior

Henry Dumas: Arkansas-born poet and short story author on andreabadgley.com
Henry Dumas: Arkansas-born poet and short story author

Arkansas was kicking my butt, y’all. It began well, with me devouring Charles Portis’s True Grit* in two days, but when I finished the book, I realized a good half of it took place in the Oklahoma territory. Should I count it for Arkansas on my Andrea Reads America tour? (Andrea Reads America = three books set in each state, with works by men, women, and authors of color)

On top of the True Grit dilemma, Arkansas was the state that spawned my Where are the ethnic authors? post. After reaching out to faculty in the University of Arkansas English department, I still didn’t have any works of fiction set in the state of Arkansas and written by Arkansas authors of color. I considered relaxing my fiction rule to read the professor-recommended nonfiction titles; I considered reading an Arkansas-set novel written by a novelist who has lived her whole life in New York. I took a break from Andrea Reads America to read The Goldfinch while I ruminated on what to do about the Arkansas dilemma(s).

When I finished The Goldfinch, I was doped on excellence. I drifted through life in that post-amazing-novel daze where you haven’t yet blinked back into reality; I knew whatever book followed was going to suffer, like those poor ice skaters who crash when they follow a gold-medal performance.

And what followed was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I’ve read the book before, and I know it is good, but it did not satisfy me this time. I wanted fiction. I wanted landscape. Caged Bird is nonfiction; it is soulscape. I thought, well, maybe I need something funny, something totally different from the literariness of The Goldfinch; maybe I need something light, something totally different from the seriousness of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I found a murder mystery series set in Arkansas and written by Arkansas author Joan Hess (she satisfies my woman author criterion!), and I drove to our library to pick up one of the titles in the series, Misery Loves Maggody. I tried to like it, I really did. But the characters were caricatures – exaggerated and expected – and the settings, dialogue, and scenes were cliché after cliché after cliché. The murder didn’t even happen until more than 100 pages in. But more disappointing than any of that was that since I did not detect authenticity in the characters, I did not trust the setting either; the setting could have been a silly spoof of any Southern town – I didn’t get a feel for Arkansas from it.

In other words, Misery Loves Maggody didn’t work for me either.

I was a teensy bit frustrated at this point. Just a tinch. I still needed a non-Caucasian author, and I still needed a woman. One of the Arkansas professors suggested Janis Kearney, the Presidential Diarist for Bill Clinton. She is an African-American writer from Arkansas who wrote a biography of Daisy Bates, an Arkansas civil rights activist. She also wrote a memoir, Cotton Field of Dreams. Awesome, right? Woman and not white. Works set in Arkansas. Problems solved, right?

Neither were available at our county or University libraries. And as I’ve mentioned before, despite being an avid reader, I rarely buy books.

On the drive home after yet another trip to our county library, where I discussed the option of an interlibrary loan of Cotton Field of Dreams with the librarian ($3 fee, could be a few weeks before it shows up, maybe I should just order it), it occurred to me: why don’t I run a search for short stories? Surely there’s at least ONE short story out there by an ethnic author. That’s all I need. Just one.

So I searched.

I searched, and I found.

Henry Dumas. Born 1934 in Sweet Home, Arkansas. Called “an absolute genius” by Toni Morrison. Wrote poetry and – get this – short stories. Fiction! And? And! When I searched the University catalogue, his short story collection, Ark of Bones, with – praise the Lord – stories set in Arkansas, pinged “Available, 3rd Floor, Newman Library.”

The next day, after a trip to the 3rd Floor, Newman Library, I plopped down on our couch with Ark of Bones, and I nearly cried for joy. The stories are alive, and they are different from anything I’ve read in a very, very long time. If ever. They are dark and smoky, masculine and earthy, filled with mojo and magic; they read as if they come from a long line of souls buried deep in the earth. I imagine Henry Dumas was an intense man; he certainly had reverence for the dignity of his race.

Most importantly, in what is surely the crowning accomplishment in his writing career, he rescued me from a post-Goldfinch spiral and an anti-Arkansas frustration. I am grateful to him for that. And I am grateful to the works that didn’t work: I would not have found Henry Dumas without them.

*I decided to keep True Grit for Arkansas. It’s too great a book to leave out.

This was originally published February 17, 2014 on Andrea Badgley’s Butterfly Mind.