This post marks the restart of an experiment I gave up on ages ago in the midst of graduate school. Back then any attempt at a regular series of posts about what I was reading was a bit of a wasted effort. It was, after all, a continuation of my “day job” and I didn’t see a lot of point in talking about books online when I could do it in real life with my fellow grad students every day. Given that I’m now a bit removed from my usual debating partners about literature, I thought it might be nice to revisit the idea. Oh, and give the series a better title (Textual Detritus…what the hell was I thinking?)
Given that I’m hitting the restart button I should point out some of the ground rules I’ve decided to use: first, I have some overarching goals, but there’s no set list of what I have to read for a given post. I want to keep this fun, spontaneous, and keeping with the “errant” title. I do want to do one post in the series every week. I guarantee that I will eventually miss this goal. So it goes.
What about those overarching goals? Well, this post is the start of goal number 1. For the last few years I’ve wanted to go back and read all of Pynchon’s work from start to finish. My dissertation work focused on his more recent novels and Gravity’s Rainbow. I read his work out of order though and I’ve been dying to go back and revisit everything in order of publication (or as near as I can manage). I’m starting out with the stories in Slow Learner (but crucially I’m not reading Pynchon’s Introduction to the book. I’ll get to that between Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland.) I’ve always been drawn to Pynchon’s work, and I can’t think of a better way to start out this particular series. As they say: Go big or go home.
“The Small Rain” – Thomas Pynchon (1959)
I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for “The Small Rain.” My father was stationed at an Air Force base in Biloxi Mississippi for a short time during the seventies. The descriptions of military life here have always reminded me a bit of the stories my father would tell me about his time in the “armpit of America.” My apologies to my friends who are natives of Mississippi. It wasn’t a particularly happy time in my Dad’s life. My dad’s stories don’t particularly match up with “The Small Rain” either. I mean, “The Small Rain” doesn’t have a guy running around threatening people with a machete.
My father is definitely not Nathan “lardass” Levine. Levine’s lethargy and listlessness harkens back to the stories my father’s told me about a military life punctuated by long periods of not knowing why you were doing something up until the moment you simply weren’t doing a damn thing at all. Levine’s central problem, and the conflict for the entire story is the detached listlessness he’s found as a tongue-in-cheek career man. He’s motionless, coaxing life along through his attempts to perfect his beer belly.
The events of “The Small Rain” revolve around Levine’s brief foray out into a disaster area along the gulf coast where a hurricane has destroyed a small town. Levine and his peers are shipped out to set up radio communications near the disaster area. They are, for the most part, completely removed from the disaster itself until Levine decides to go out and help recover the bodies of those killed by the hurricane. This decision is the crux of the story.
Pynchon contrasts Levine’s menial existence to the devastation and chaos caused by the hurricane. Levine’s problems are meshed with the disaster in an inseparable way. After seeing the devastation, Levine finds himself in a new type of rut. This becomes explicit when Picnic, one of Levine’s peers asks Levine “what’s the matter, Nathan? Where is the old Sgt. Bilko type soldier we used to know and love?” (45). Levine’s response is to call into question his lethargy. He states, “It’s probably only my stomach . . . After all the time I’ve been developing and caring for this here beer belly, something like those stiffs comes along and throws it out of kilter” (45-46). The symbolism here is a bit heavy handed to say the least. Levine’s unthinking existence in the military has been upturned by his encounter with death on a grand scale. The “nurturing” of his beer belly makes a clear allusion to pregnancy. Levine’s “pregnancy” isn’t going anywhere though. Instead, he’s finally seeing is that there is no result attached to his developing and care of that belly. What’s thrown his “pregnancy” off is the prevalence of death in the disaster area.
How the story gets to this point is a bit convoluted. The main threads are tied up and diluted between the vacillation between the two main plots, the general goofing off, constant attempts to hook-up with the co-eds at the local college, and (to me) a general slow build of scene setting. I’m not willing to write the story off though. The overall emphasis is a powerful one. Nevertheless, the delivery leaves much to be desired. It ultimately ends up highlighting one of the areas in Pynchon’s writing I’ve struggled with over the years. Levine ends up having sex with one of the local co-eds at the end of the story. Sex here is obviously juxtaposed with the death that Levine’s seen. It also emphasizes the emptiness of Levine’s self induced “pregnancy.” Having lost the “meaning” held in his belly, Levine turns to actually procreative sex. That is also undercut though through its implicit and passing nature. The scene does little to dispel Levine’s unease with his encounter with death.
I see this scene as pointing towards Pynchon’s use of sex in his later work. At its best Pynchon’s use of sex scenes disturb readers through their juxtapositions with the more problematic elements of life. The excesses of sex in Gravity’s Rainbow contrasted with the Thanatos driven motives of the novel’s characters comes to mind as the most powerful example. At their worst they become self-parodies. (I’m certain this topic will come up multiple times in this project so I’ll just get back to the story at hand.)
Here though the sex scene doesn’t add to the story. Instead the real emphasis to the story happens when one of Levine’s peers, Rizzo, confronts him about having gone off into the disaster zone on his own. Rizzo states, “It took me a while though to figure out where it was you’d gone” (51). Levine responds, “Christ, let me in on it” (51). The ending gathers the threads of Levine’s encounter with death and sums it up in a way that the sex scene becomes a moot point. Levine goes back to Fort Roach in the same rut he left it with the significant difference that now he’s aware of it. It’s soured his stomach both literally and metaphorically.