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2968 words
SHJ Issue 18
Spring 2018

The King of the Underground Writers [A Review of The Best of Bumpus]

by Duff Brenna

Forthcoming soon from Serving House Books (Copenhagen, Denmark; Florham Park, NJ, USA)

Jerry Bumpus is Professor Emeritus at San Diego State University. He holds a BA in English from the University of Missouri, and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa. He has published 121 stories, 24 of which have been anthologized. His work has appeared in Esquire, The Paris Review, The Best American Short Stories (1974 and 1975), Tri-Quarterly, The Iowa Review, and dozens of other respected journals. He has also published five story collections and two novels. His third novel has been brewed and is in the final stages of polishing.

In the fifteen stories comprising The Best of Bumpus, his sixth collection, he uses a writing tactic familiar to any fan following his work: Each story’s setting is launched in a locale that is generally recognizable to an average reader, before eventually veering into what appear to be very tenuously attached sensibilities of actual life. Some of these conceptions have the dark nightmarish quality of a dreamer inhabiting a world that has no east or west, north or south, no up or down, but rather points of reference that are boundless, wherein what we witness is concrete, but also gelatinous. True, yes, but not exclusively true in a three-dimensional world. The darkness on display is often fragmented with slants of light through which one repeatedly experiences laugh-out-loud humor (usually as outlandish as it is ironic), unashamed sex of every imaginable type, and a tangible madness lying beneath the carapace humans wear as a means of survival. He uncovers and explores lives that cast a spell as real as voodoo to those who practice voodoo, or perhaps practice the enraptured cannibalism of eating a god transmogrified into a wafer. It can be grotesque; it can also be spellbinding, revealing an imagination frequently beyond description.

Bumpus’s stories and novels model the weirdness of not just our species but all species of every sort. If a critic had to pick a dominant theme that the author obsessively explores, that theme might be: life is absurd. The absurdity of it all, the absurd nature of existence itself, the absurd behavior of human beings caught between the billions of years before life somehow arose, and the billions of years that will follow its extinction.

Paradigms: “Anaconda (An Excerpt),” wherein we meet Alonzo McCaferty, a wanderer wandering vaguely back in time. He doesn’t know where he’s going and only tentatively knows where he’s been, though it all may be a dream he’s dreaming on the move whose purpose will reveal itself if he just keeps going, perhaps to a setting that honors “Things in Place” which enters the point of view of a man named Haskel, a semi-hermit living in a canyon between “two buttes staring at each other.” Haskel calls them “the Big Ideas” because “They looked sure of why they were there.” Mid-story he meets Lily and Hopalong, two motorcycle gang members ejected from their tribe, their motorcycle long gone, along with Hopalong’s penis.

Bumpus writes unlike anyone his readers are likely to know. He is flying millimeters above any “normal” plot with “normal” characters, on his own skewed trajectory (although here and there, as through the looking glass, one catches hints of Faulkner in the midst of devilishly creative word play, e.g., The Sound and the Fury or Sanctuary, that same masterful deftness, beauty, and humor sporadically macabre, as in “Mrs. Bell and Her Dog,” where Larry Tyler, a handicapped man (he may be a dwarf or a midget) has a room in a boarding house whose upstairs hall is patrolled at intervals by a menacing dog. “There was an awful beauty in the dog—a valueless beauty, amazing, based on its intensity, its brutal thoughtlessness, its great size.” Mrs. Bell bullies the dog, and the dog bullies Larry. It sees and smells Larry’s weakness—which is always a canine come-on. Mrs. Bell takes pleasure in teasing the dog, yelling at it as she does at Larry. It’s a distorted bestial marriage between her and the dog, with Larry as their child needing chastisement. The threesome illustrates a story of twisted persistence. There is no cunning involved; circumstance, inclination, and/or fear drive the players forward. Terrifying Larry becomes the goal for both the old lady and her fanged monster.

Riveting and ruthless and rough and immoral might be a way of marketing what happens in “A Lament to Wolves.” A clueless mother (is she really clueless?) seems to turn a blind eye to the fact that her son Loren is about to seduce his own sister Ella. He’s been away for many years, but now that he’s come home the desirable daughter becomes bait to keep him captivated. The self-deluded mother says to Ella, “Thank God the boy’s turned out good. He’s a good man, like his daddy was.” Ella is staring numbly out the window as the mother continues, “It’s a miracle... If you ask me, it’s a miracle of God,” and then she goes silent, until “the nervous movement of her lips resumed, the restless whispering.” Of course Loren is exactly like his daddy was, and therein rests the problem that not even Ella will admit to herself.

“The Angel Business” seems to take place on another planet that looks like Earth but spawns supernatural phenomenon such as angels who pester human beings, some who are as rapacious as the angels themselves. An old friend named Russell steps out of the past, arriving at the narrator’s door and proceeding to take over his life. Soon there are eight guests having dinner at the house. As they sit at the table, Russell brings up the existence of “Angels...big white angels.” A guest named Koch asks him what he has by way of proof. Mrs. Russell rises and says, “We have a plethora of proof. Enlarged glands...” “Photographs,” Russell corrects her before she continues: “Enlarged photographs. Plaster casts of footprints. Large fingerprints which have no swirls or whorls”—she lifts her arm, her big hand spiraling upward. “And of course we have the best proof of all,” Russell said. “The angels themselves.” Servants wheel in a table bearing a display: a plaster print of a large, five-toed foot with a horn-like projection at the heel—a talon, Russell calls it. That night a “house angel” brings a clattering, shattering chaos that has some guests fleeing in terror. Others remain determined to capture the thing. Ultimately, it doesn’t show up to be captured and we are left to consider whether Russell is a con man or an angel himself. And what of his supposed confederates? At first they seem to be a cabal hunched round a table at a séance, mesmerized by possibilities that might actually exist. Or are they merely dupes for one man’s giant, self-absorbed ego?

“House Hunting Near the Frontier” creates a daydream of dark closets inside a crumbling home, where two parents and their young son wander aimlessly, while whispers fill the air. Ears cocked, the boy believes that his mother and father are talking about him. He knows that he is more of a nuisance than anything and no one knows what to do with him. Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” comes to mind.

“Flowers in Your Hair” opens with a man lying in bed musing about a trip to San Francisco and wearing flowers in his hair. Someone lies beside him saying “Yes” to all he says as he ruminates about who or what he is. He asks himself if the feeling he’s experiencing is actually normal. A little matter of a pronoun gives the ending of this flash piece an unexpected twirl that makes everything surprisingly clear, Bumpus putting the end stop in just the right place as crafty writers frequently do.

“Dawn of the Flying Pigs” makes the point that an overabundance of male endowment (so much so that it causes “stunned fascination and frenzied adulation”) may not be the gift that many men think it is. If you’re too large down there and inclined to flaunt it, you may find your “gift” is actually a curse.

Two boys become “Chums” (sort of) when one leads the other to “a mausoleum as large as an apartment house, with barred windows set high in the walls, almost to the slate roof.” Once inside the huge crypt, the first boy, “narrow-faced, yellow eyes, a V smile, his body like a stick,” goes to a casket, climbs inside, and invites the other boy to join him. What happens is revolting, yet transfixing and almost unbelievable, yet undeniably human, proving once again the species is capable of anything—anything that can be imagined, that is.

“Heroes and Villains” characterizes the wild imagination of a writer named Mirna who “was fairly sure this wasn’t a dream she was having, though now in the gray gallery it all seemed tremendously far away.” She has been distracted, in part, by a remarkable face she is either seeing or imagining, “yellow and protuberant as if his head had been squeezed from behind, bulging his eyes, jutting his lips, and creating at least a fistful of nose.” Is she writing a story, or is she seeing something concrete? “Were they tumblers?” Mirna says aloud, visualizing a troupe of little people tumbling down a corridor, a white pony’s hooves clattering, a calliope sending its hopeful tootle echoing through a hospital. “Tumblers?” a nurse named Hudlow says. “Ah—” rolling her eyes up—“no. More like actors. Actors being ordinary in gray suits. Ah—actors in politics, dicks and goons.” Mirna walks down a hall, nurses walking on each side of her, and when she asks about her hospitalized daughter, “Is Eileen resting well?” the answer is “She—ah—remains catatonic...That’s resting very well.” What mysteries we are, thinks Mirna.

The conversation (or hallucination) continues: “I guess you know they got the husband of that one,” says a girl hiding in a corner and nodding toward Eileen on the bed. “Crunched him down to a bouillon cube. But my Robert they sliced off half of him—the back half, from the head straight down. If he ever walks again he’ll have to tiptoe everywhere—no heels.”

In the next scene, Basil Stein (an undercover cop?) takes out a book called We Wiser Disguisers, reads a line or two, then looks up. “Why are you interfering in these affairs, my dear?” he asks. And Mirna tells him, “I happened to be in the country to see my publisher.” Like actors playing the same part on or off stage, Mirna stays in role wherever she goes.

At a house and caught between two groups of men firing assault rifles at each other, Mirna sees “Through the dust” [the fog of war?] two black men stumbling through a kitchen and out the back door, carrying a washing machine with a chained woman riding on it. Next thing Mirna knows, she is under the house hiding from the bullets flying above. Someone comes down and yells, “Everything’s on fire!” The floor was hot and through it they heard fire, a steady, increasingly loud rumble. “Dig!” Mirna yells as she claws the sand. “Roy dug beside her, scooping out sand between his legs like a dog. He shoved his face into the shallow hole, and cupped sand over his ears and neck.” Mirna sees all the chaos as an enactment of what happened to Patty Hearst’s kidnappers: the Symbionese Liberation Army with their hideout burning down around them. Later, after escaping the horror, Mirna finds a slim volume with a slick black cover. “She opened it and read the first lines, casually metered and rather obscure, rather private, concerning her life with heroes and villains.”

The tendency for this reader was to follow the fantasy (if it is a fantasy) wherever Mirna’s imagination was taking it. It’s a brilliant story, maybe the most mesmerizing in an entire collection packed with riveting tales like “Lovers” demonstrating the destructive but innocent nature of children undisciplined and doing what a child might do if she or he were left to their own devices. It’s possible that every neighborhood has a teenage girl who behaves like a lover named Penny, whose “reputation flowed from mouth to ear among boys close to her age.” A girl who gives into the promptings of her maturing body, for which boys found in themselves the inchoate winds of change blowing them toward the “meaning of life,” boys brave enough or entranced by the compelling nature of Penny girls.

A man and two women sit on a patio “shaded by the web of the biggest spider Charles has ever seen.” When he offers to kill it with a board, Frankie says, “Go ahead,” at the same time Ruth says, “No way! Mr. Spider is my buddy.” It turns out that Ruth is the spider spinning a psychosomatic web around “Mr. Tangible,” transfixing him before preparing to take him apart inch by inch.

Introducing “Patsy O’Day in the World,” a young woman living an aimless life, call it a “hippie” existence where strangers, friends, and lovers come and go, none with a purpose that she can measure. Their bodies are open for whatever happens, no matter how absurd it might seem: a drug-addled, suicidal boy leaps out a window; people wander the streets throughout the night; couples make love without passion, not knowing each other’s names. Patsy, an outsider in their midst, is peripatetic but going nowhere. There is nothing on her mind that she can name. It’s all gray—the sky, the apartment, the suicidal boy’s eyes, the landlord, no more Technicolor in a life she never chose for herself. One gray day following another surrounded by gray walls, gray people, rainy gray skies.

“You might think that since they were old hands as nurses they would have realized there prevailed a downward inevitability in things,” but Hobart in “A Song of Old Fangles” saw in them “no more acceptance or wisdom than in other people, and certainly less inclination to accepting defeat.” He falls for one of the nurses: “And she was huge. Her arms and legs bulged, and her hips were little people stowed away under her uniform, riding her through the night.” “No false modesty,” Mrs. Nash told Hobart. “You can whip anything. You know what?” She winks, “sending shivers through him as he stares at her face,” a face “small and coy atop her big body.” “I can tell about people,” she says and licks her lips. Hobart is a good kid. Employees at the hospital where he works love that he’s so kind and helpful. He has a wife who gives birth near the end of the story. It’s a triumphant moment for Hobart—until it isn’t.

Helen Droosman has a stroke. But she survives and eventually is well enough to go back to her real estate business. A man and woman show up one day wanting to see a house that has been advertised. Helen proudly calls it “A Very Modern Home.” She makes an appointment to meet them the next day, but when she arrives, the couple isn’t there. The mailbox is full, so she “starts taking the letters from the box when a woman opened the door” and Helen realizes she’s at the wrong house. She makes the best of it. A small mistake, but how nice the woman is, smiling and nodding, understanding Helen’s dilemma. Then suddenly the nice woman points past Helen’s shoulder and says, “Is that your car going off by itself?” Indeed, the car canters down the street and bumps into a tree and “Water poured swiftly through her head,” a phenomena that keeps occurring. Eventually, we understand the feeling of water is akin to a mini-stroke.

The next day, Helen meets the couple and drives them to the house, but she gets lost again and again, before finally finding the right address. Bumpus describes it: “ enormous empty lot covered with trees and underbrush. But through the tangled landscaping gone wild they saw a high gray wall.” Water pours through Helen’s head again. She tries to lead the couple inside, but can’t find the entrance. The husband, Mr. Taylor, finds the way in. Helen tries to lead, but she’s soon lost and the couple go off by themselves, up stairways in and out of rooms, while Helen longs for something, a chair “or any kind of furniture” so she can sit down. What she finds is a huge white room, “the largest she had ever seen”.

“A Very Modern Home” is as straightforward as user-friendly stories ever get. It stays firmly in Helen’s mind and describes her medical condition so precisely that one might wonder if Bumpus has ever experienced what his character is experiencing in such unfocused yet extraordinary detail. To think that it may all be imagined is to leave one a little stunned and acutely awed.

The stories in The Best of Bumpus present their creator at his most accessible, least accessible, and accessible maybe, maybe not. That is to say: the Bumpus world is bedrock real one moment and shifting sands unreal on the page opposite, depending on the subject matter and who or what is narrating. Some characters have one foot in here-and-now certainties, while the other foot toes the lunacies of a dream, revealing tenuous connections between bizarre behavior and pure accident and the oddities of unforeseen collisions between minds conventional and minds caught in a maelstrom of what our lives can be—daily clutches of anxiety, angst, disbelief, fear, a sense of living in alternate dimensions—no bottom or walls or resting places, all of it seriously human and, by association, absurd. Look to Xanax. Pray for sleep.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury