A Passage from Darconville’s Cat

As I round the corner on J R, I’ve been weighing up which book I want to read next. A strong contender is Darconville’s Cat by Alexander Theroux, a novel that wrecks Ford Maddox Ford’s tried-and-true Page 99 Test. It’s an 800-page basket of oddities, with strange words, musical lists, incantatory passages, huge burning swathes of satire, all folded denser than protein and pressed into service in order to tell a story of love, rejection, and – if the book itself’s narrator, Augurello, who describes himself as a “personal jurisconsult and theological wiseacre,” is to be believed – murder . Flip it open to any page and you’ll find something interesting – interesting even without the context of what came before or after, independent of the usual narrative incentives. Unforgettable tchotchkes and one-liners crop up everywhere. Every chapter kicks off with a quote from another author. On page 99 itself one character whispers something “as if she were breathing on glass;” looking up at the chapter titles you’ll see such ones as “The Deipnosophists,” “Chantepleure,” “A Digression on Ears.” It goes on and on, brilliantly, in all directions.

I opened Darconville one day recently and found the following, a description of – I believe – a particular kind of person living in rural Virginia:

“It’s a kind of club—300-pound dipshits, always named something like ‘Hawg,’ Clayton, or Orval—who drink flask bourbon, have chigger-bites on their arms, and wear their hair either short or slicked back (the comb tracks are always visible) to reveal faces like those reversible trompe-l’oeil funheads you snip from the Sunday paper to fool someone with. They have no chins, are inclined to be goitral, and are always chewing down on a blade of grass fiercely and absentmindedly. They are given to wearing suntans, white socks, work boots, and cheap acetate shirts, the sleeves of which are always rolled up to a point higher than the triceps brachii in tight little knots. They like whiskey with good bead, respect Shriners, whistle a lot, drive with one hand, slide crotch-first onto barstools, and—just ‘funnin”—love to hang around butt-slapping and goosing each other, punctuating certain remarks of course with that significant nudge just before they’re going to fart. They like to wade into swamps and jacklight rats, are big lodge-joiners, and know everything about guns which they handle, silently, with phallic reverence. They have hands like cowhorn, with nails bitten to the quick. They have spools of rusting cable in their backyards, nail coons to the walls, adore rodeos, and their execrable grammar is half informed by protective coloration, half by rank stupidity.

They loathe sentiment but thrive on sentimentality, violently beat their women with pony-leads on Saturday night but weep with guilt at Sunday-Go-to-Meeting during the singing of ‘The Old Rugged Cross,’ their favorite. In groups, they’re dangerous; each, alone, is a simpleton. Fanatically patriotic, they’re all knee-jerk defenders of state sovereignty and go blubbery at the mere sight of the Confederate Battle Flag. They’re either whispering sideways about Jesus or bawling obsceneties, georgic in imagery, with stentorophonic might. They’re handy, can always tell one car from another, know the right weights of oil, love to use the word ‘ratchet,’ and always know when to use bailing wire and when to use bagging wire. They know everything about loggerheads, trace-chains, and hames and can always be found driving the backroads in trucks, filled with wood, wedged with chocks, toward a sawmill shed in the mountains. They all smoke, snite from the nose with the forefinger, and suffer from very particular ailments: Basedow’s Disease; gleet; fishskin itch; furunculosis; rodent ulcer; pyorrhea of the gums; Walking Typhoid; mucous patches; and tic douloureux. They all know shortcuts through the woods. They lurk.” (Pages 164 – 166)

My copy, which I found miraculously at a thrift store in Colorado at precisely the time I was looking for it, belonged to somebody else before me, a person named Diane; she has tidy, curvicular handwriting and annotated extensively as she went, often saving me the legwork of looking up definitions for the many obscure, outmoded, or self-fashioned words Theroux infamously employs throughout, but sometimes just apostrophizing her frustration in the margins: on the page with the above passage there’s a frustrated outburst: “rambling descriptions – over my head!”

I understand her vexation, and naturally this kind of writing, Theroux’s Gothic cathedral maximalism, is even more “Not for Everybody” that most things – but I eat it up, and I read and reread this passage with relish. It’s rife with the violence of specificity, pinning something real to the page with hilarious, necessary exactitude. It also, naturally, goes way overboard; it’s insensitive, and there’s a heavy snobbery throughout; also I detect aggression towards homosexuality in the “just funnin'” bit and. actually, omitted a middle paragraph that made distasteful accusations along those lines.

But this passage, it’s like a song I can’t get out of my head, and Darconville is the strong favorite for my next book – even though it could be too much, or overstep too many lines; and even though I’ve been spending some time on the side with Lonesome Dove and am – whoops – already 100 pages in…

By the way: it doesn’t look like Diane made it all the way through Darconville. Her notes burn out ’round page 400. She also listed her five favorite books on the fly-leaf:

Love in the Time of Cholera

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Rain of Gold

The Big Sky

The Alchemist

I’m deeply interested in three of the five.

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