Who’s the Asswipe?

There are two things I want to touch on for this week’s reading. The first is asswipery. Clyde repeatedly and affectionately calls his friend Herb an asswipe, but it’s not Clyde or Herb I’ve got in mind. It’s Belt and Jonboat.

Many years ago, I wrote a thing about basically insecurity and envy in which through comic hyperbole I characterized this imaginary person who was good at everything, likable, ambitious, kind and generous and even actually heroic, and so on. They could do no wrong. Thinking about myself next to this fictive person — who I suppose must have had some elements stolen from personalities of people I did truly admire — made me feel pretty cruddy, as I felt when thinking of myself next to these purloined personalities. And the point of the exercise was to think through this feeling very positive about successful, good people and simultaneously feeling like I was warmed-over sewage by comparison, which led to a little paradox of both admiring and — well, the word “hating” is rather strong for it, but I’ll say hating or feeling a sort of misanthropic envy of them.

This is sort of how I feel about Jonboat. He was an entitled teenager, sure, but it’s not so uncommon for teenagers to be kind of shitty. So I went into this week’s reading not really prepared to like him very much out of envy if nothing else, with his ridiculous compound, his sirenesque wife and their ridiculous banter, his goddamn obnoxious leather loafers and flower-print board shorts and rolled linen sleeves, his immense wealth and disturbing (if in some ways also sort of likable) son, his career as a record-setting astronaut, his jet-setting. Everything leading up to the meeting with him really telegraphs that he’s probably an entitled jerk. And, well, there is a bit of that — the name-dropping and insufferable telling of tales about King Hussein and Chuck Yeager, his showing off of the helmet. But then, these are noteworthy achievements and engagements and souvenirs. The human body is a horrifying biological hellscape sloughing off skin and filth, so I wouldn’t want to wear his helmet as Jonboat invites so many other people to do, but it’d be neat to see it, maybe to heft it. And he does seem genuinely to feel affection for Trip and Fondajane. He regrets things like his childhood use of the term gaylord. Maybe he’s not such a bad guy. Maybe my instinct to dislike him is just projected envy of a basically good person.

But then he really goes off on Belt about the incomprehensibility to Belt of their income disparity. For ten pages he spews vitriol in one of the most condescending rants I can recall ever having read. Dickishness confirmed.

Only then it turns out that this is what Belt took away from an arched eyebrow, the signing of a check, and a simple question. And maybe Belt’s not so terribly wrong about Jonboat’s sentiment toward him. Jonboat does a couple of times try to run him off, for example. And Jonboat did uncharitably misread Belt’s book and didn’t respond to his letters. But boy, the viciousness of Belt’s interpretation here, the lengths to which Belt went to make me think Jonboat a colossal asswipe makes me begin to rethink how I feel about Belt.

I’ve liked Belt so far. He’s kind of a dud who as Jeff points out can be tough to live inside the head of. But he’s also thoughtful, generally not on the cruelty-to-cures bandwagon, and goodness knows he’s trying here. But now here suddenly I don’t know if I like Belt so much after all. Maybe he was writing about Jonboat in No Please Don’t. Maybe what have seemed mostly like petty aggressions (e.g. Pang) signify a greater pathology of personality. Maybe, that is, Belt is the asswipe.

In any case, we see this sort of symmetry of toxic assumption on the part of both Jonboat and Belt. Jonboat read Belt’s book in the worst possible way. Belt received Jonboat’s gesture somehow in worse than the worst possible way. Maybe everybody is an asswipe.

The second thing I wanted to touch on is that Belt seems maybe at last to be growing up. I wrote a few weeks ago about Belt’s mom’s sadness at Belt’s optimism about having kids next to her probable assumption that he would never be self-sufficient enough to function as an autonomous adult capable of having children.

In this section, Belt begins to grow up after sort of reckoning with his own childhood friend (after having had sort of a play date with that friend’s child and that child’s surrogate mother, complete with snacks, games, and TV). He earns an income. He does taxes, makes much more adultish banking transactions than the one early in the book, gets his driver’s license, buys a car, and starts seeing a woman. He hangs out with grown-ups and buys fancy (and hilariously named) booze. And he seems pretty capable of doing all of this without, apparently, much assistance.

While undergoing some of this development, he begins to leave behind his relationship to Blank. Whose name is Kablankey. Which sounds a lot like blankie. Which is a thing little kids hang onto and finally let go of as they begin to be big kids. Maybe I’m leaning too much on a word game here. Still, whether the blankie thing holds water or not, there is in this section what seems to me to be a very rapid growing up of a heretofore stunted (if eloquent and complicated) character, which makes me wonder whether it might be fruitful to begin thinking of Bubblegum as essentially a stalled bildungsroman.

11 thoughts on “Who’s the Asswipe?

  1. Mavis June 22, 2020 / 12:13 pm

    I’ve been thinking of Belt’s growing up and change of character in relation to having money. Haven’t fleshed out any of that, but having a comfortable amount of money seems to have changed him. Changed either him or his writing style about himself, that is.

  2. John Armstrong June 22, 2020 / 8:40 pm

    Well there’s the first question for the Zoom call.

  3. Rob June 23, 2020 / 1:58 am

    Well said, Daryl.

    Belt’s writing style (no more over-analysis) and behavioral changes are really noticeable in this section and they literally make the book easier to read for a while. He writes “I’d like to stop writing about feelings” on p 655 (hey, I recently found a way to show print page numbers in my e-book). I thought I had highlighted another section where he says something even more pragmatic, but I can’t find it. Something like “I don’t want to over-think things any more.”

    I wondered if Belt “demonstrated growth” when he wrote to Stevie, “You have my word I won’t bother you again” (p 656). This is with his insight that writing three times to Jonboat was a mistake.

    Responding to your post, Belt’s entire self-conception, which began in childhood, might be a tragic accident of sorts. Is he really mentally ill in a way that he needs to remove himself from society as much as he has and live with his dad on disability? He becomes so pragmatic and active so quickly in this section (and later makes up for a lifetime of notable non-sexuality with … a bunch of sexuality … which I didn’t really buy) that I feel like there is something we are missing in his characterization. He has perhaps found it convenient to live life based on his childhood self-conception — which of course was formed by other people/society in good part (“psychosis NOS”) — and he spends a lot of time in a depressive mode as a result. Maybe.

    —-

    There are some details throughout this book that wonderfully recall the small flavors of the 80s and I don’t imagine a writer could do that without having “been there”, but maybe they can, and that’s why they’re world-class fiction writers, I dunno. The one I highlighted this week was “you were always wearing those awful glasses with the tinted lenses that never fully clarified and never fully darkened, they just remained in that middle state of gray, which made you seem like you thought you were hiding your eyes, like you thought you were getting away with something ……”. (p 613) Jonboat’s imaginary criticism of Belt here made me laugh, as I hate the photos of myself wearing those ugly half-tinted lenses as a kid in the 80s. (I know tinted lenses still exist, and in fact I stupidly tried them again c. 2003; yep, still looked bad in them IMO).

    —-

    Does the print copy, like my e-book, have a typo on p 652: “Feelgood Dsytopians”? That’s the only typo I’ve seen. I have a good eye and am available for proofreading

    • Rob June 23, 2020 / 2:14 am

      Oh dear, I put a sarcastic “(cough)” in angle brackets at the end of that sentence but the comment system has removed it. Too much like an HTML tag.

      So like… it was a joke!

    • Paul Debraski June 27, 2020 / 4:22 pm

      I had those glasses too and it brought back many unfortunate days of half-tinted glasses. The eye doctor assured my son that the tinting is now 100% better and his pair did actually get pretty clear in a dark room. You’d think the technology would improve over forty years.

      I’m also usually good at finding typos, but I missed Dsytopians–probably because I always have hard time spelling it to begin with.

  4. Jeff Anderson June 26, 2020 / 6:47 pm

    This is one of the things I love about reading together, like we do here, rather than on my own—because I totally forgot to remember that this book Bubblegum isn’t holding itself out as a novel but as Belt’s memoir. That means it’s all rhetorical performance. I read “Jonboat Speaks” as Belt dramatizing/divulging his tendency toward self-lacerating interpretation of every smallest human interaction that he can read hints into; but you make the excellent point that as he’s roping a dope, he’s also slandering Jonboat pretty viciously, which as a writer he’s going to be aware of.

    Funny note on Jonboat and his type: I worked for a number of years at a luxury magazine that was basically aimed at folks like him. Here’s a $1 million car, here’s a $60,000 bottle of scotch (the names of the scotches in Bubblegum were cracking me up by being wrong by, like, two inches), here’s the tailor in Milan whose unmarked shop door you should knock on. Jonboat’s whole aside about how he’d actually had a steak-and-polo outing with King Hussein and boy could he tell you how gauche the man is felt so believable.

    I love that you returned to your note about Belt’s mom’s sadness over his desire to be a dad. That’s a beautiful thing that Levin wrote and you put together, and I’m happy-sad to be reminded of it again. And I love Kablankey=>blankie!

  5. Jeff Anderson June 26, 2020 / 7:43 pm

    Oh, and on the same general wavelength re: Belt putting words in Jonboat’s mouth: I said in comments on a previous post of yours that all the characters sound substantially similar. But of course they do—Belt’s the one writing their dialogue! He told us as much (in fact, you block-quoted him telling us as much), but it wasn’t until he did it again with “Jonboat Speaks” that the synapse fired for me.

    • Paul Debraski June 27, 2020 / 4:24 pm

      That synapse didn’t fire with me until you just said it here. So is the whole book the memoir, including the parts where he says “I wrote chapter so and so?”

  6. Paul Debraski June 27, 2020 / 4:17 pm

    Asswipe in the context of this story made me laugh out loud a number of times. Especially tying it to Boston and wearing hats.

    But yes about Belt. For Belt to imagine such a lengthy and hate-filled reply means that belt is either ragingly insecure about himself (or at least with regard to Jonboat)–which he doesn’t really seem to be. Or, as you suggest, filled with a kind of inhumanity. He loves cures, but people…not so much.

    Throughout the book, we get the idea that Belt is “mentally unstable” in some way or another. He’s got the inans, he was in a program, everyone seems to think he’s “crazy.” And yet when he “matures” in this section, everything he does is “normal” Income, vehicle, casual sex partner, alcohol.

    Speaking of, I don’t drink, so the Scotch names were amusing to me, but I honestly didn’t know how uch of a joke was in there aside from the whole “Mac” thing (anyone see Swingers?). Although I did enjoy that the one was macguffin (because I thought he was going to become a raging alcoholic).

    I’m with you on the growing up (as I wrote), but I hadn’t thought about the “blankie” part. (I also love the “playdate”). It’s very tempting to think of Cures in general as childish things because most of the people who interact with them (that we see) are children. But it’s very clear that adults have and overload on them too.

  7. Daryl L. L. Houston June 28, 2020 / 9:55 pm

    Wow, thanks for all the responses on this one!

    Bubblegum itself is a big sensory memory for me, so that rings my cherries more than the glasses or other bits of nostalgia. But all around, in spite of the ways in which it’s a little distorted from our world and my childhood, I can identify a lot more with the world Levin builds here than the one he builds in The Instructions. I liked both worlds (well, I can’t say that I like maltreatment of Cures), but this one is filled with more nostalgia that connects to my own childhood. I believe Levin and I are very close in age, so this makes sense to a degree.

    I loved the scotch names. I don’t know much about scotch, but I knew these were, as you put it, Jeff, about two inches off. I wondered too if MacGuffin might be something to poke at as a reference to a literary device, but I didn’t poke at it. Whenever I hear somebody say that something tastes like Band-Aids, say, or like shit, I sort of wonder… how do you know? But you can sort of know. It’s a weird phenomenon that I guess speaks to how intimately connected taste and smell are. Raw hot dogs are another pretty gross bit of nostalgia for me. Boiled ones too.

    Rob, your suggestion that Belt’s self-conception is the result of a tragic accident holds some water for me. I mean, he hears voices, but otherwise, he seems capable on the whole, even if he’s been allowed to avoid being capable. Was Clyde that good an enabler? He doesn’t really seem the type, but here we are.

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