Sunday, April 24, 2011

[Not] A Quiet Afternoon

The elders should beware such [hot] days. Peril hovers near when the fierceness of weather forces inaction and boys in groups are quiet. The more closely volcanoes, Western rivers, nitroglycerin, and boys are pent, the deadlier is their action at the point of outbreak. Thus, parents and guardians should look for outrages of the most singular violence and of the most peculiar nature during the confining weather of February and August.

Oh, foreshadowing. And foreshadowing done in an excellent manner. We know the boys are hot, pent up, close to boiling. And we know that boys, once they start down a path of conversation, are never shy in acting out their ideas, once the devil is in them.

The devil indeed. In Booth Tarkington’s brilliant “The Quiet Afternoon,” taken from his novel “Penrod,” we see a group of boys dodging the heat in the carriage-house at little Georgie Bassett’s house, discussing what they would become when they grew up.

Little Herman captivates the audience with the story of a pole-climbing preacher after one of the boys declares he’d like to be a minister but his friends deride him because he’s too scrawny to climb a pole.
"Preachers don't have to climb poles," Georgie said with dignity.
"Good ones do," declared Herman. "Bes' one ev' I hear, he clim up an' down same as a circus man. One n'em big 'vivals outen whens we livin' on a fahm, preachuh clim big pole right in a middle o' the church, what was to hol' roof up. He clim way high up, an' holler: `Goin' to heavum, goin' to heavum, goin' to heavum now. Hallelujah, praise my Lawd!' An' he slide down little, an' holler: `Devil's got a hol' o' my coat- tails; devil tryin' to drag me down! Sinnuhs, take wawnun! Devil got a hol' o' my coat-tails; I'm a-goin' to hell, oh Lawd!' Nex', he clim up little mo', an' yell an' holler: `Done shuck ole devil loose; goin' straight to heavum agin! Goin' to heavum, goin' to heavum, my Lawd!' Nex', he slide down some mo' an' holler, `Leggo my coat-tails, ole devil! Goin' to hell agin, sinnuhs! Goin' straight to hell, my Lawd!' An' he clim an' he slide, an' he slide, an' he clim, an' all time holler: `Now 'm a-goin' to heavum; now 'm a-goin' to hell! Goin'to heavum, heavum, heavum, my Lawd!' Las' he slide all a-way down, jes' a-squallin' an' a-kickin' an' a-rarin' up an' squealin', `Goin' to hell. Goin' to hell! Ole Satum got my soul! Goin' to hell! Goin' to hell! Goin' to hell, hell, hell!"
Herman possessed that extraordinary facility for vivid acting which is the great native gift of his race, and he enchained his listeners. They sat fascinated and spellbound.
"Herman, tell that again!" said Penrod, breathlessly.
Herman, nothing loath, accepted the encore and repeated the Miltonic episode, expanding it somewhat, and dwelling with a fine art upon those portions of the narrative which he perceived to be most exciting to his audience. Plainly, they thrilled less to Paradise gained than to its losing, and the dreadful climax of the descent into the Pit was the greatest treat of all.
This, of course leads to argument, the favorite past-time of boys, and to the denouement in the tree in front of Georgie Basset’s house where the Rev. Mr. Kinosling, georgie’s mother, and a bevy of timid housefraus gather to discuss Georgie’s perfect countenance and the world of sin in general, which cannot, for example, countenance that Joan of Arc was guided by spirits any more than it can countenance that she was not:
This was the fatal instant. There smote upon all ears the voice of Georgie, painfully shrill and penetrating--fraught with protest and protracted, strain. His plain words consisted of the newly sanctioned and disinfected curse with a big H.
With an ejaculation of horror, Mrs. Bassett sprang to the window and threw open the blinds.
Georgie's back was disclosed to the view of the tea-party. He was endeavouring to ascend a maple tree about twelve feet from the window. Embracing the trunk with arms and legs, he had managed to squirm to a point above the heads of Penrod and Herman, who stood close by, watching him earnestly--Penrod being obviously in charge of the performance. Across the yard were Sam Williams and Maurice Levy, acting as a jury on the question of voice-power, and it was to a complaint of theirs that Georgie had just replied.
"That's right, Georgie," said Penrod encouragingly. "They can, too, hear you. Let her go!"
"Going to heaven!" shrieked Georgie, squirming up another inch. "Going to heaven, heaven, heaven!"
His mother's frenzied attempts to attract his attention failed utterly. Georgie was using the full power of his lungs, deafening his own ears to all other sounds. Mrs. Bassett called in vain; while the tea-party stood petrified in a cluster about the window.
Disaster, of course, only disaster.

Again, an author who recalls Patrick F. McManus, for his fondness of writing about children, and for their shared ability to capture the essence of the stubborn, linear, loud-mouthed folly that is young manhood, which bounces from one tangent to the next until the final tangent intersects once again with the real world and brings that magnificent exploration of Truth, Beauty, Justice, and Future crashing into the cold, cruel world of reality.

Well done, Mr. Tarkington. Well done.

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