James Wilcox’s charming comedy is set in rural Louisiana, among people who read the Bible in an engagingly amateurish way, associating religion with the conventions about drinking and dancing enforced by their anxious parents, and sometimes tempted to ‘modernise’ their lives, while still seeking God’s guidance. These lively middle-aged innocents of the 1980s seem like naughty English choirboys and girls of the 1940s. Can Modern Baptists be true to life? We may hope so.
Carl Robert Pickens is occasionally called Bobby, but more often Mr Pickens, in a Dickensian, Pickwickian way. He has many problems. He has just been sacked from his job as assistant manager at the Sonny Boy Bargain Store in Tula Springs – partly because of the State of the Economy but also because he is accused of ‘not doing a very good job handling personnel. He was too easy on people, let them get away with murder.’ The personnel consists of two attractive women, 37-year-old Burma and 18-year-old Toinette, both of them supervised by their mothers. His half-brother, F.X., has just come out of jail to live in Mr Pickens’s house – and together they make rather an unfair sort of comedy team. Not Hope-Crosby, nor Abbott-Costello, more like Martin-Lewis. As his initials suggest, F.X. is the son of a Roman Catholic mother and he is (by Tula Springs standards) almost as slick and Italianate as Dean Martin – ‘Hey, brothers, pour the wine!’ – while Bobby Pickens is as kack-handed and sincere as Jerry Lewis.
Since he is nearly forty, F.X. is in a hurry to become a celebrity. Before he went to jail he had been doing well in clothes-modelling for the catalogs and even appeared in old TV commercials – still showing on the cable television from Baton Rouge, between horror movies and ‘Three Stooges’ revivals. When F.X. takes Toinette out, her mother calls round to rebuke Mr Pickens: ‘Toinette told me you would chaperone. I thought I could trust you, Mr Pickens. You tell that F.X. he better not hurt my baby.’
The next chapter begins with a horrific song: ‘You’ll be boiled, you’ll be strangled, I’ll skin you ...’ But we soon recognise that this is only a mock-Turkish aria by Mozart. Mr Pickens is relaxing at an amateur operatic production, feeling pretty smart in his new tie from Fraternity Row, over in Mississippi. But there are bad omens – the lady in the mink stole, the kind that had the heads left on it, the eyes ‘small, black, vicious beads that glared at him in outrage’, and the change in the Louisiana weather, ‘turning the crisp November air into a rank soup that smelled of hearty weeds, yellowing lawns and mutts on the loose’. The bad news comes when Burma tells Mr Pickens that F.X. has planned for Toinette to pretend to rape him (F.X., that is, not Mr Pickens) in order that they can become celebrities.
So Mr Pickens is keen to leave the house he is sharing with F.X. He runs away to shack up in the house of Burma’s mother, who is on holiday and has left Burma to share it with her friend Emmet: but Burma’s mother has told Toinette’s mother to watch the house and make sure the kids don’t get up to mischief. Mr Pickens does not think much of Emmet, who slops around the house with dirty magazines, wearing only a T-shirt and briefs which reveal the scars he suffered in a jeep crash during his army service. But both Emmet and Burma think highly of Mr Pickens, partly because he has a good command of English, using words like ‘anguish’, ‘lugubrious’ and ‘polygamy’, and partly because they think he is going to die of cancer.
This belief is the result of a mistake at the hospital: the celebrity-mad F.X. has advised Mr Pickens to sue the doctor, but Mr Pickens won’t do that because the doctor is a member of his Bible Study Class. However, Burma and Emmet think Mr Pickens is doomed and holy, so they tiptoe about his bedroom asking for words of wisdom while he reads Psalm 35, which ‘seemed to have been written especially for him’. He is reading of the false witnesses that have laid to his charge things that he knew not (‘Let destruction come upon them at unawares’) and about the abjects who have gathered themselves together against Mr Pickens – when ‘one of the abjects wanders into the bedroom dripping Eskimo Pie on to the rug’. This is Emmet wearing nothing but his briefs, bony as a gar, every rib prominent on his leathery hide. Emmet wants advice. Mr Pickens, the modern Baptist, explains to him that he is ‘suffering from polygamy ... It was more common in ancient days, especially in hot climates, but evolution has weeded it out ...’ He urges Emmet to pray. For this purpose Emmet switches off the lights, removes his shorts and accidentally upsets a bottle of eau de cologne – so that the room stinks like a brothel when Toinette’s mother barges into the prayer meeting and accuses Emmet and Mr Pickens of being degenerates.
It may be feared that I am revealing too much of the plot. Not so. Modern Baptists, though not a long novel, is ‘packed with incident’ – and very tidily packed, very skilfully paced. There is another principal character who must be mentioned. This is Donna Lee Keely, a qualified lawyer who has returned to Tula Springs with a mission to modernise her parents and other residents, to bring them in touch with the realities of the outside world. She stalks around the town in an ancient racoon coat, scowling handsomely, and telling other women how to behave in a feminist way.
She disapproves of her father’s all-male Bible Study Class, suspecting it is a sort of men’s coven for encouraging racism and reactionary politics, ‘telling nigger jokes’. She barges in, scornfully, and adds further confusion to their incompetent interpretation of a knotty passage in Nehemiah. Toward women she behaves with the self-assurance of Flora Poste at Cold Comfort Farm: but feminist fashions have changed and, whereas Flora Poste would pretty them up with bras and make-up, Donna Lee prefers scrubbed faces and the anti-sex-object style. The whole book resembles Cold Comfort Farm (though it is much less mocking and parodic), even in the descriptions of the landscape. Where once the sukebind twined, we have cow’s-itch and chinaberries. To look up the exotic vegetation in Webster’s adds to the pleasure of reading the novel. It is also worthwhile looking up Wilcox’s Biblical references, since, though he makes fun of Bible-readers, he takes the Bible seriously.
Sven Delblanc’s Speranza is another foreign novel that may remind us of British genre-parody – especially William Golding’s Rites of Passage, that witty, near-sadistic parody of traditional seafaring yarns. Like Golding’s novel, Speranza begins with the journal of a healthy, self-satisfied, idealistic young gentleman enjoying an adventurous voyage and uttering Enlightenment cries in Romantic language. ‘Oh, bliss, to be young in the light of morning over the sea! To awaken refreshed, young and strong, every sense on the alert! Malte Moritz! My name, hovering like a kite in liberty’s breezes. Malte Moritz von Putbus. To my friends, though, I am often “Mignon”.’ He is sailing to the New World, ‘the land of freedom’, and is studying Jefferson and Paine to add to the liberal education he has derived from Rousseau and the Encyclopedia. The young Swede is accompanied by his German tutor and his Negro valet and he is thoroughly enjoying his nautical experience.
But the Speranza is not so happy a ship as Malte Moritz supposes: it is like a Golding vessel, designed for bullying. The hold is stacked with black slaves. Other members of the ruling class on the Speranza can cope with the ethical problems presented by this economic situation, but not Malte Moritz, who flounders about like a wet Tory: he would like to buy the slaves with his money and set them free in Africa – but the slave-owners would only use his money to buy more slaves. His tutor and his valet find political roles to play in the controversies arising on the Speranza: there is a tough-minded, intellectual Jesuit on board who wants the slaves for his rum distillery at Puerto Rico and there is a vulgar ship’s doctor who, despite his snappy, cynical talk, works hard to palliate the slaves’ sufferings – rather like Schindler palliating the sufferings of the Jews in Nazi Germany – while still drawing his pay from the popular captain’s economy. Malte Moritz, though, needs a philosophy to support him and justify his participation in this horrible establishment. Since he is an aristocratic Swede, in love with liberty, equality and fraternity, we may think of Dag Hammarskjöld floundering in a ‘United Nations’ organisation dominated by evil dictators with savage police forces. This is a strong ship-of-fools story, translated by Paul Britten Austin into good English which may have made Malte Moritz a touch more naively self-parodic than Sven Delblanc intended.
From Canada comes a beautifully contrived set of parodies of traditional English ghost stories. Robertson Davies (author of many plays and novels, The Manticore being the best-known over here) has been Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, and his High Spirits is a compilation of the ghost stories he used to offer, instead of an after-dinner speech, at the gaudies of his college, rather as M. R. James told his little masterpieces to the Boy Scouts of Eton. Robertson Davies would not claim to make the flesh creep, as James did, though he sometimes succeeds – as did J. K. Jerome in his comparable set of genre-parodies, Told after Supper, intended as jokes but haunted by those strange spirits who are ever ready to pounce upon a medium, however jocular he thinks himself. In the Thirties, Robertson Davies went to Balliol (like all the mighty Masseys of Canada, who haunt his college and his stories, along with the ghosts of Queen Victoria, George V, Mackenzie King and the Devil himself). He noticed that Oxford was haunted by that eerie scholar, Montague Summers, who dressed like a Mediterranean priest but was always accompanied on his afternoon walks ‘either by a pallid youth dressed in black, who was supposed to be his secretary, or by a large black dog, but never by both. Tongues wagged.’ Such familiar spirits, according to Robertson Davies, need to be imported to a fairly modern college like Massey – ‘a building of great architectural beauty; and few things become architecture so well as a whiff of the past, and a hint of the uncanny. Canada needs ghosts, as a dietary supplement, a vitamin taken to stave off that most dreadful of modern ailments, the Rational Rickets.’ Massey College is now thoroughly peopled with ghosts, and a visitor equipped with High Spirits will be able to seek them out, pleasantly informed about the geography of the place from the Round Room to the gateway with its heraldic bull’s head, so discouraging to the female students.
Dudley St John Magnus also lives in Canada, but he was born in Surrey and claims to have lived as a bagman in Australia in the Thirties. The narrator of his semi-autobiographical novel, Hanabeke, is called Morton Montgomery de Ruthwell (a name as unsuitable for an Australian bagman as Dudley St John Magnus), but he is persuaded by his mate, Snowy Mulligan (who hates his mother for christening him ‘Cyril’), to change his monicker to ‘Mick O’Doone’, whose identity papers Mulligan happens to have about him. This novel is a weird sort of quest story. The narrator came to Australia as a London lawyer’s clerk, searching for a crook called Hanabeke who might be a beneficiary in a London will. Do not spoil the story by turning to the end, in eagerness to find out who Hanabeke is. This is good prose which should be read aloud slowly on the radio (as Dylan Thomas used to read Davies’s Autobiography of a Super-Tramp).
Two new English comedies seem wan and sad after these four exuberant, exotic plants. The author of Train to Hell is an Alternative Comedian: that means, the sort that doesn’t make you laugh. He claims to have made his name by appearing in Hampstead wine-bars as a stand-up misery, swearing at ‘trendies’ and telling them about their faults. Since then he has saddened the domestic screen on Channel 4. Train to Hell, allegedly about a football supporters’ railway journey to Italy, is packed with unfunny parodies of jokes about trendies, Italians, Jews and the working class. It reminds me of the Fool in All’s Well That Ends Well who attempts to amuse the Countess and Lord Lafeu with grim prose about hellfire: when he leaves the stage, they remark that he is a ‘shrewd’ and ‘unhappy’ Fool. In modern productions these words are generally sighed in an elegiac, Chekhovian way, as if in commiseration with Tony Hancock or Evelyn Waugh: but I think that by ‘shrewd’ Shakespeare really meant shrewish, bitchy, catty, and by ‘unhappy’ he meant ill-omened, sick, really bad news. Alternative Comedians are often shrewd and unhappy in the older sense of the words.
Anyone tempted to compile a book called William Donaldson: The Critical Heritage should turn first to Richard Boston’s Book of Practical Jokes in which Donaldson’s hoax ‘Henry Root’ letters are unfavourably compared with Humphrey Berkeley’s hoax ‘Rochester Sneath’ letters and Don Novello’s hoax ‘Lazlo Toth’ letters. Boston remarks that ‘Donaldson’s time as a pimp in Chelsea is recorded in his Both the Ladies and the Gentlemen, a book which I have not read, but which I am assured on good authority is extremely droll.’ On the fly-leaf of his new book, we find tributes to that earlier novel: ‘A cross between Wodehouse and Isherwood’ (Alan Brien), ‘The most glitteringly funny prose since Evelyn Waugh’ (Kenneth Tynan).
The English Way of Doing Things does not live up to these tributes. The farcical plot evidently attempts a dirtied-up Wodehouse style, of the kind successfully carried off by Tom Sharpe; the prose style of the opening chapter may be an expression of admiration for Waugh’s haughtiness, but it is overpunctuated and quickly degenerates (when the whores appear) into an overexcited parody of breathless pornography; of Isherwood there seems no trace – unless we count the interest in the pain-seeking department of the brothels.