In the event that my Jack Butler streetcred is waning, I should note that, by some miracle, I have obtained the hardcover edition of Jack Butler’s Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock, for the princely sum of $1.00.
I’m now about 200 pages in and I’m hoping to attempt a summation of this mammoth book once I finish it. As first lines go, as Professor Fury observed two years ago, it’s hard to beat, “Howdy, I’m the Holy Ghost. Talk about your omniscient narrators.” So far, this book hasn’t gripped me in quite the same way that Jujitsu for Christ did, but it has a playful prose style that suggests a more ravenous Pynchon*, almost thirty pages of boxed-in thoughts reminiscent of Gilbert Sorrentino’s introspective shenanigans, a good degree of editorial cartoons and newspaper clippings embedded within the text, and an ambitious sweep that reminds me very much of Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers. Evolutionary theory, sex, economics, and gin martinis are just some of the topics tackled in this book.
In other words, this is a book that sneaks up on you. Butler is that rare author who commands you to understand why the hell he thinks along certain lines.
Now about this character named the Holy Ghost: He will sometimes address the circumstances directly, only to shift to close omniscient narration, and by close, we’re talking nearly every detail, down to the minute, that plagues lawyer Charles Morrison as he’s sitting in a bar after a fight with his wife contemplating everything from the exact shade of fury he’s calibrating to Tecate’s metallic taste. And then Lafayette, a former football star, takes over in first-person, as does a character named the “Hog,” who calls the Holy Ghost out on his gimmicks.
“How serious you expect us to take this?” says the Hog, “I mean, come on, you’re just the author messing around, trying to pull some kind of metafictional stunt.”
I had mistakenly thought that Jack Butler was simply a more politically incorrect and scatological Charles Portis. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
This crazy book came out in 1993. It is now sadly out-of-print, which is a great shame. Butler appears to have given this book everything he had. That such an ambitious book appears to have been dismissed a mere fourteen years (and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, no less!) after its first appearance is a strong sign that either it takes a particularly off-kilter reader to groove on Butler or some literary folks, confusing “red state” with worthlessness, simply weren’t ready for a fictive exegesis on Arkansas.
* For example:
“She would forget to eat, until, in a matter of moments, she crossed into red-line hunger, her shoulders drooping, her face drawn, her eyes panicky. Then she thought she could carve raw slabs from the sides of cattle, then she carved great radiant chunks of crusty and buttered bread, jackstraw heaps of steamed vegetables, gravies ladled profusely over giant conglomerations of agglutinated starch, caldrons of thick and bubbling soup, the battered and fried hindquarters of amphibitans, fowl, mammals; then she imagined stacked triangular sections of stratified chocolate dolloped with heavy and beaten cream, or amputated segments of lambent cherry pie, scoops of ice cream sizzling to nothing atop them.”
It isn’t any author who will concoct the phrase “amputated segments of lambent cherry pie,” much less reveal hunger for its more unpleasant qualities.