As episode ten of part one of Gravity’s Rainbow opens, Tyrone Slothrop — injected with sodium amytal to induce a sort of trance wherein his psyche will be probed — is chewing on the line “Bet you never did the Kenosha Kid” in much the same way that I remember trying many years ago as a would-be poet to bend the repeating lines of a villanelle to my will by hanging on them different meanings and syntax. Is the Kenosha a dance? Or is the Kenosha Kid a person? If so, is he from the town Kenosha? And what does all this tomfoolery mean anyway? Weisenburger calls this interlude “one of the outstanding enigmas of GR,” and I certainly remember being baffled by it when I first read the book a few years ago.
But this time through, with the syntactic chicanery involved in the obsessive construction of a villanelle on my mind and tromping through the prose a bit better oriented than last time, I began to make a strange sort of sense of the Kenosha Kid bit.
Episode 1.10 is in some ways about discovering the pure. Consider for example Slothrop’s race anxiety, which certainly calls to mind period concerns with matters of miscegenation, race inequality, and so on. The appearance of Malcolm X (and particularly the fact that he appears pre-enlightenment) seems telling enough. The reference to the song “Cherokee” and Pynchon’s line “one more lie about white crimes” and several other references to Indians made me think of America’s treatment of its aborigines, which may resonate with certain other grisly race marginalization that World War II reeks of.
Weisenburger posits that this episode introduces some of the most important opposites in the novel (e.g. north/south, black/white). He also mentions the at first (to me) unintelligible pairing of “shit” and “the word.” Well, the episode is surely full of shit. But what’s this business about “the word?” Maybe it’s a typographical error in my older edition of the companion. Thinking of Slothrop’s descent into the sewer, I remembered that episode 1.4 dealt pretty extensively with another pairing: sky vs. earth. And flipping back, I reencountered the following: “Shit, money, and the Word, the three American truths, powering the American mobility, claimed the Slothrops, clasped them for good to the country’s fate.”
That capital W makes a big difference. Slothrop’s turpitude generally and our trip through the sewer of his uncomfortably unfettered subsconscious looks back to his family’s history and its granite-chiseled concern for squaring matters with that hand reaching down from the sky. Near the end of 1.10, we even return briefly to a churchyard scene:
Then for another moment it seems that all the Christmas bells in the creation are about to join in chorus — that all their random pealing will be, tis one time, coordinated, in harmony, present with tidings of explicit comfort, feasible joy.
But then we go right back to Slothrop’s fantasy of the Roxbury slum, sine-waving from relief, hope, and redemption back to the gutter and his fear of all those black folk with their prying fingers, and back to those ehisshehwle Hahvaad boys who ought to know better than to think the sorts of things we encounter while rummaging through Slothrop’s mind. All this back and forth, from grime to righteousness and so on, begins to seem to correspond roughly with that pesky pairing that big books tend to touch on: right and wrong.
In 2005, a Pynchon reader discovered a pulp western story titled “The Kenosha Kid” that itself takes up moral ambiguities. The eponymous hero is described early on as a sort of Robin Hood. A gambler who makes his living taking other people’s money but who has a large capacity for both guilt and generosity, the Kenosha Kid struggles over the course of the story with how he can best reason which of the people he encounters are and are not scoundrels and how he should conduct himself. For example, he cheats at cards to beat a man he believes had pulled a prior stick-up, but then he begins to feel sympathy for the character. When the stick-up-artist lands in jail due to circumstances resulting directly from the loss of his money, the Kid endures something of a moral crisis. He feels bad for the bad guy. Published in 1931, the story is of about the right vintage for Slothrop to have read as a youngster. And of course we all know that we dredge up the weirdest things in dreams, presumably also when in drug-induced trances.
So to me, the Kenosha Kid bits that frame 1.10 begin to make sense as snatches from Slothrop’s memory that bubble up as he works through matters of judging people based not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character (reasoned judgment of character being something the Kid prides himself on). It’s especially relevant given the content of Slothrop’s hallucination and our discovery in 1.12 that the whole point of his participation in these experiments is “to help illuminate racial problems in his own country.” In other words, maybe all this poking at Slothrop ostensibly to get at racial issues in America is pushing buttons in his head that make him ping-pong back and forth between reprehensible racist thoughts and a more noble and enlightened impulse he’ll recall from having read “The Kenosha Kid.” None of this is to say that I think Pynchon is trying to show us a man fighting a morality war with himself; but it does seem as if he’s maybe showing us a way in which he thinks the brain might operate when left untended.
Slothrop’s wordplay, then, becomes for me a sort of emblem of his subconscious brain at work. In the same way that I twiddled lo these many years ago with the syntax and enjambment of my repeating lines of doggerel until I felt like I had worked out a scheme that felt right, Slothrop’s tranced-out brain here is trying to piece together a coherent sense of the moral right, and as so often happens in dreams, a minor detail becomes the focus of a riff, is imbued with greater significance than it really merits on its own.