Thursday, June 21, 2007

Books: Fisher's Hornpipe, by Todd McEwen

McEwen's debut novel, Fisher's Hornpipe, begins with the end of protagonist William Fisher's sanity. Walking across a frozen Walden Pond, Fisher sees Thoreau trapped under the ice, asking for help, and in turning to seek out Emerson, he slips on the ice and hits his head. He wakes in the hospital, where he is given stitches and a giant bandage, which quickly begins to ooze with blood and seethe with puss. While Fisher continually insists that his bandage has nothing to do with his behaviour, a series of events has been set in motion that cripples his sanity and robs him of his volition.

Carrying the ever-present burden of his aspirations (a violin which he can barely play, which, even prior to his accident, he dreaded equally practicing and not practicing), Fisher's will is irrelevant to his life. He is moved, it can be argued, by three or four possible powers (which powers, three of four, at least, he considers during the novel's denouement, when he walks through the snowy night from Boston to Providence): Women, Frank of Oregon, the Ass, or (my edition) the author (who could very well be synonymous with the Ass).

Fisher would like to blame his demise on women. There are three of them in his life throughout the space of the book: the law student girlfriend at the book's beginning, a preppy librarian from work in the middle, and, ever-present, but only as a sexual partner at the end, a fascist hippie. It is his horror of the fascist hippie that drives him, the night of his accident, to a dreadful bar in the bowels of Boston, where he meets the hobo Frank of Oregon. The two get terribly drunk, Frank shows Fisher his manifesto and asks him to type it for him at work, and Fisher brings the bum to his law student girlfriend's apartment to spend the night. Things have already not been well between the two of them, and their sex life has devolved due to her medical fetish. The next morning, he wakes alone, and it later becomes apparent that his girlfriend has slept with Frank of Oregon (without any medically-related behaviour). They will later run away together. The librarian is merely an amusing interlude; she, too, has an absurdist fetish (she insists that Fisher act as her high school teacher and chide her for turning in a Wuthering Heights paper two weeks late; the details are imperative), and her ritzy set provides the perfect foil to Frank of Oregon's sloppy, soiled, homeless person, which person Fisher comes to mirror more and more each day, neither showering, shaving, nor changing his blood and coffee-stained clothes for the entire space of the novel.

Frank of Oregon, whose manifesto was written on a variety of scraps including napkins, foil wrappers, and a piece of leather somehow inspires Fisher, despite the girlfriend issue, to go along with his odd whims, organizing a meeting of the city's hobos. When Fisher arrives, Frank is not there, and after an hour or so, the crowd of derelicts gets feisty, shouting for Fisher to speak. He opens his violin case (which now holds a cheap replacement for his previous violin, which had been in turn drenched and then burned in the oven at the home of the fascist hippie; this new violin has a bow that doesn't fit inside the case, and all of its strings are broken. Fisher's hopes, clearly, are shot, but he continues to carry them, broken, and is viciously protective of them.) Here, he finds a note from Frank of Oregon, who has eloped with the law student, and is never to be seen again. The note urges Fisher to begin the revolution on his own. Facing the angry crowd, Fisher doesn't know what to say, so he begins to read Frank's manifesto. This incites the crowd to riot, and they mob the nearby market, tearing it down. Police, firemen, and perhaps even the National Guard are called in, and newscasts advertise Fisher's name and photograph on TV as the culprit.

The fascist hippie sees the newscast and comes to save Fisher, keeping him under sexual house arrest in her bed. His hate for her transmogrifies to extreme sexual passion, but the police come and he escapes through the window, haphazardly dressed and without his socks. He trudges along train tracks all night long, through the snow, at last a true hobo. He stops a couple and asks for money to buy coffee and a hot dog. His demise seems final.

Fisher makes it to an old friend's seaside house outside of Providence, where he takes up residence and where the novel ends. His (possibly mad) friend is struggling to write an epic poem by candlelight, and his house is filled with collected junk. Fisher takes one item per day from the house out to the beach, where another old madman, obsessed with erosion and entropy, artfully arranges the items so that the beach might wear them away. He does not part with his violin.

The Ass is Fisher's metaphor for God, which pisses down rain and shits down snow over Boston from it's toilet bowl in the sky, only occasionally lifting a cheek up a fraction so that a single shard of sunlight can peek through. The Ass, like God, like the author, doesn't so much willfully control Fisher as create impossible situations for him, such that logic does not apply and sanity is not feasible.

The book is a fantastic read, rich with absurd and poignant details, the perfect smattering of silly sex, and nonchalant collisions with existentialist questions (none of which are solved, of course). If I were to extremely picky, I would suggest that something is missing in the way that McEwen offers Fisher's demise without ever situating Fisher's previous existence—we witness his de-evolution without ever knowing precisely what tower he has fallen from. Ultimately, McEwen writes with such nimble flair that it doesn't matter much, but only if one embraces the post-modern and doesn't cling to the logic of the Classics.

No comments: