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.