Friday, October 7, 2011

Review: Hitting the Charts – Selected Stories, by Leon Rooke

I think it must be a lot of fun putting together a collected works of Leon Rooke. Such a wide oeuvre to choose from, hundreds of stories written since the 1960s. So much zaniness – and so many different kinds of zaniness – to be read and reread, and then selected, and then arranged into an order that answers to its own logic, its own peculiar arc.

Hitting the Charts brings together 19 of Leon Rooke’s better-known stories written over the last 40 years. Those already familiar with his work will recognize many of the titles: “Mama Tuddi Done Over”; “Sixteen-Year-Old Susan March Confesses to the Innocent Murder of All the Devious Strangers Who Would Drag Her Down”; “Some People Will Tell You the Situation at Henny Penny Nursery is Getting Intolerable.” And for those who, like me, have limited experience with his short stories, this collection is an excellent place to start.

To say Rooke is a proponent of voice appropriation is both an understatement and, paradoxically, inaccurate. He doesn’t so much appropriate voices as he inhabits them, letting the narrative tone be subsumed by the consciousness of his characters, their backgrounds, their milieu. Take, as a random example, this passage from his story “Hanging Out with the Magi”:
Velma spooned more lard fat into the skillet and stood for a few seconds with her feet planted in utter concentration, her lips puckered, stirring with a frenzy. Then she ladled the egg lumps onto a flimsy paper plate and brought them over.

“Here are your eggs,” she gaily reported, blowing hair up out of her face and into his eggs too if that was where hair had a mind to fall. “Here they are, hard and greasy and not fit for a buzzard and just like your mama used to cook them when she was up and able.”
I think it’s the “gaily reported” that gets me every time.

Most of Rooke’s ventriloquisms are informed by the cadences and patois of the Southern United States – he was born and raised in North Carolina, though has lived in Canada for decades – and it’s impossible to read his work without being swept up in those rhythms and intonations. In fact, when I got to “Henny Penny”, having not read it before, I decided quite arbitrarily to read it aloud to myself, and within a few lines had adopted a thick, Kentucky-fried accent. Within about a page, I had started gesticulating wildly with my hand as I read, much like Rooke does during his public performances of his work. (These are quite a sight to see. Anne Michaels, in a rare instance of lucidity, provides an apt description of them here.) There was no question that this should happen when reading “Henny Penny.” The accent, its rivers of tempo, cannot be ignored.

Of course, to pigeonhole Rooke as strictly a “voice” writer, as a barker of the absurd, as a post-modern trickster, is to do him a disservice. There is a highly crafted structure and pacing to each of these stories, a careful balance to the ingredients that make them so good. It’s also worth noting that Rooke is as unafraid to take risks with his subject matters as he is with his voices. One the stories, for example, called “Sidebar to the Judiciary Proceedings, the Nuremberg War Trials, November, 1945,” is comprised almost entirely of an exchange between Martin Heidegger and a craniologist.

And if all this sounds deeply complex and somewhat inaccessible, rest assured that Rooke is also capable of straightforward descriptions that bring sudden bursts of recognition in the mind. Here he is describing one of the characters in his story “Biographical Notes”:
Robin found little in life about which to be enthusiastic. He was fond of reminiscing over the recent past. If I went out with Robin and Wanda for a night of drinking and relaxation after a grueling day on the set, Robin’s sole delight was in reminiscing over what the three of us had done the previous evening.
Even if you don’t know somebody like that (and for me, I do) then you can at least concede that such a person can and does exist.

Rooke’s literary reputation has experienced a lot of ebbs and flows over the last 35 years. But I reckon (there’s that damn accent creeping in again) that he has just as much of a chance of being read 50 years after his eventual death as any of the so-called heavyweights in Canadian literature. Hitting the Charts is another solid example of why this is the case.

Related link (speaking of voice appropriation): My review of Rooke’s novella Pope and Her Lady.