Here’s the penultimate week of this book and there’s no clear ending or answers in sight.
I was really looking forward to seeing Jonboat again. He has been this looking figure–billionaire, astronaut, husband of the most beautiful woman in the world, father of Triple J. And we know very little about him besides that. And WOW does he make an impression. Sort of. Actually, he doesn’t make any impression except on Belt’s psyche.
This section begins with a bit of a misdirection: Belt picking up a magazine at the White Hen because astronaut Jonboat was on the cover. Flipping through, he couldn’t find the article (typical of big glossy magazines) and wound up looking at an article about the famous chef Clem.
Clem (I’m guessing inspired by Emeril?) was eggplant shaped with arms like noodles–he looked like a combination of Ringo Starr and Yasser Arafat–he seemed all wrong and yet he looked fantastic. This was because everything in the room was custom made just for him. He was measured for an oven, molds were made of his hands for his knives etc. Somehow the objectively handsome assistant looked unfit in the room because everything fit Clem.
I love the librarian joke that Pang shouts at him: You think my name is Marian? (and a wonderful discursive joke about this not being a library). But Belt didn’t buy the magazine because he needed money for Quills.
This is all a set up to say that Jonboat looked in his office as if every inch of it was measured to fit him.
As Belt walks in, Jonboat says “Hey, you,” and holds out his arms for a hug. It take a second before Belt realizes he’s talking to Fondajane who is next to him.
There’s some playful banter between Jonboat and Fon. And yet I can’t decide how to read this. Is Jonboat a pedantic jerk or is he fun and good at teasing?
She says “As the kids say…Now we’ve come to the part where I make my exit.” I love that Fon either doesn’t know or doesn’t care what the kids actually say. Jonboat suggests they say, “I guess that’s my cue [to leave].” But Fon retorts that that was two eras back. They gave that up for their name and out: “Fondajane: out.” Jonboat says that he never heard of it: “Jonboat: incredulous.”
When Belt tries to interject into the banter, Burroughs pats his arm to tell him to keep out of it. As Fondajane leaves she says she has to meet Robbie bin Laden for dinner. This story’s skirting of 9/11 with lines like this is fascinating and I wonder if there will be any kind of payoff, or if it’s just reminders of the slightly-off timeline.
Finally Jonboat turns his attention to Belt. He gets out his business gear (he is there to sign the contract for Triple J) and Belt notices a cure running on top of a globe. Jonboat is trying to train it to walk on four feet, but it is disposed to walk on two–a sort of glorious defect.
The cure is really cute. Even for Belt. Belt starts to get uneasy–so much so that Burroughs steps in his line of sight to avoid any trouble. Belt is surprised and dismayed that he didn’t just want to hold it, he wanted to squeeze it–and he imagined in some detail what the experience would have been like.
This cure has a fascinating history. Its name is Handsome Arthur Twelve and although Belt thinks it is so cute it must be eleven years old, it is in fact, only one.
There’s an amusing tangent about how Valentine Archon has no “self restraint” or “impulse control” (suggestions from Burroughs), Jonboat says that’s harsh, that Valentine has no “dispassion.” They relate a story about Valentine wanting to go with them to Saint-Maxime because he thought it was close enough to San Sebastian that they could drive there. Why? Because the kid loves The Sun Also Rises and assumed that San Sebastian was the most beautiful, peaceful place on earth. Turns out they are ten hours apart and they won’t be traveling there (Valentine didn’t check a map, or even tell Burroughs that he wanted to go to San Sebastian before they left). Valentine is…disappointed.
They also say Valentine also would have grabbed and overloaded on Handsome Arthur had not a glass door intervened (and given Valentine a concussion).
But the bigger story is that Jonboat got Handsome Arthur from Chuck Yeager in 2004. It may have been 2005. They base the timeline on President Reagan’s or President Ford’s funeral. Burroughs insists that Ford’s funeral was in 2005 and Jonboat asks, “You remember with complete certainty, that the year in which Gerald Ford died was not 2004, not 2006, but 2005?”
In a lengthy story, Jonboat says that Yeager says that he got the cure from King Hussein of Jordan. King Hussein was dying at the Mayo Clinic and wanted to meet Yeager. It’s an amusingly awkward meeting, the upshot of which is that Yeager–who doesn’t really like cures (they creep him out)–winds up getting Handsome Arthur and promises to take care of it.
Jonboat then won Handsome Arthur from Yeager in a night of pool. Jonboat had actually won all of Yeager’s medals, but felt bad about it so he offered to take Handsome Arthur (which he wanted anyway). Yeager was reluctant because he promised King Hussein he’d take care of it and clone it. etc. But once Jonboat said that was his intention too, Yeager was all too happy to get rid of it. (Plus Jonboat thought King Hussein was an uncouth bully anyway).
This is all to explain that he has been training Handsome Arthur to walk as a quadruped–as a kind of nod to Hussein, but it just doesn’t want to. Each clone is a biped. Even one of the richest men in the world can’t always get what he wants.
After all of that, Jonboat spies Belt looking at his astronaut helmet and says he can put it on if he wants. Belt was actually looking at his box of Cap’N Crunch not understanding how Jonboat hadn’t said anything about this box of cereal sitting prominently on Jonboat’s desk. but he decides to try on the helmet anyway.
As soon as he picks it p, it talks to him–the first inan to talk to him at the compound. The helmet says it’s in hell and asks Belt to destroy it. Belt tries to talk it down, but Jonboat can kind of hear him muttering things. Belt covers by saying he was talking about the gift. Jonboat assumed that Belt brought the cereal because it was “a medical thing” like he was hypoglycemic–although you wouldn’t carry around this much. [I don’t know why, but I find this very funny that Jonboat would honestly assume that Belt brought a box of Cap’n Crunch with him for dietary needs].
Jonboat takes out the shirt and says some perfunctory but nice things about the gift. hard to read again, but he seems genuinely pleased but in the least amount one can be pleased and still say they are pleased.
He tells Belt he looks like a million bucks. Belt tries to joke saying it’s more like one hundred thousand since that’s how much he now has. Jonboat blows off this attempt at a joke but when Belt asks is he has offended Jonboat, Jonboat replies with one of the most biting, nasty, humiliating character assassinations I’ve ever read. I was shocked at the vitriol. I was so disappointed to realize that Jonboat was such a callous cocky money-obsessed jackass. He essentially tries to make Belt understand how much wealth he has by saying that the #100,000 he just gave Belt would be like if Belt gave away 4/5 of a cigarette out of a pile of 200,000. Also, that he though Belt was weird for writing to him three times at school and had likely been in an institution.
So when Belt ends the chapter by saying that Jonboat didn’t say any of that–it was all ion his head . Wow. It got me good.
So the next section “Four-Fifths of a Quill” makes a lot of scene as a title.
Belt takes the check and in comes the notary. It is Chad-Kyle. I was genuinely surprised and (potentially) delighted to see him here. Chad-Kyle is at his aggressively obnoxious best–self deprecating and cocky at the same time. Triple J looks at Belt and mouths “wang-scab.”
Chad-Kyle is full of compliments. Praising Triple-J for everything he’s done, like “The Ulysses.” Trip corrects him, that its just “Ulysses.”
Chad-Kyle asks what he said. Trip says he’d said “The Ulysses.”
Chad-Kyle replies, “Did I say that? That’s weird I hate an article.”
Trip: “Why would you hate a part of speech, dude?”
Chad-Kyle talks about his branding skills and then reveals, fascinatingly (at least to me) that he has synesthesia and that “An article to me is…garlicky and…damp. Also magenta.”
Trip tells his dad that he gave away Spotsy to a boy who beat his record on Ulysses (Trip did better than the boy and retains first place). Jonboat says that was kind. Trip says it’s not kind so much as fair. Jonboat then says, “You can be right and kind at the same time, you know?”
Jonboat makes a dad joke in the middle here–a strangely endearing moment: “you sound like a broken record, broken record, broken record.”
Trip: “It’s a good one. Dadly as hell.”
Some readers here have wondered about their father-son relationship. It seems good–dad jokes are an easy way to lighten the mood–but it’s hard to say.
After Belt signs the contract, he takes out a Quill. Its the second time he did it. The first time Jonboat politely told he couldn’t in there. The second time, Burroughs kindly tells him he can’t smoke. When Belt says he basically didn’t even realize he’d taken one out, , Burroughs tells him to stretch out–it gets you through a jones. (Burroughs is rapidly becoming mt favorite character)
Chad-Kyle gets a little snippy then. He says he knows Belt and he wonders why Belt didn’t say hi. Trip jumps to Belt’s defense: why didn’t you say hi.
Chad-Kyle says he never would have guessed it was Belt. How would Belt Magnet ever get inside the office of Jonny “Jonboat” Pellmore-Jason?
“He must have thought the same thing seeing you,” Burroughs replied. (I love Burroughs).
Chad-Kyle looks at the desk and is excited to see–not the helmet as(once again) Jonboat thinks but the “Jonboat Say” T shirt which Jonboat draped on the helmet. He loves that it’s vintage!
Then he says he never knew how to emphasize the phrase without the “gaylord.”
Trip says why would you wear a shirt with “gaylord” on it? It’s a homophobic slur.
Chad-Kyle seems puzzled. Is he this dumb or he is this much of a jerk? How can it be a slur, isn’t it like saying he’s the lord of all gay people?
Jonboat explains the way it was used back then and says he’s not proud he used to use it.
Chad Kyle says he and his friends still use it and once when he was wearing flowers in his lapel Lotta said look at the nosegay on this gaylord. I love that Burroughs assumed (or tried to deflect) by suggesting “nosegay,” a lapel flower arrangement.
Chad-Kyle says the phrase is just better with the gaylord: “Without the gaylord it’s kinda pissing through a…”
And then Belt smashes Chad-Kyle in the face with Jonboat’s helmet (trying to destroy the helmet as much as Chad Kyle).
I’m not really sure how we’re supposed to feel about this. What pushed Belt over the edge? Is his violence justified at all (I tend to think it’s not although Clyde sure does). Are we more upset about this than about the death of the cures?
Some time later, Belt came to and Chad-Kyle is freaking out (unable to speak clearly with his busted up face). Belt hears Burroughs explaining how things are going to go with Chad-Kyle. How Chad-Kyle had tried to overload on Jonboat’s cure and Belt tried to stop him. That’s when he knocked Belt out. Chad-Kyle insists that that’s not what happened. Burroughs assures him that that is what happened and there are a room full of witnesses to attest to that. Valentine also tries to convince him that Burroughs’ version is the truth by pontificating a kind of lyric essay (Valentine’s specialty) although in the process he calls him Brad-Cory.
When Chad-Kyle leaves, Burroughs looks at Belt and tries to make it very clear that he did what he did not because he felt it was right to do. He fixed things because Trip asked him to. When Belt suggests he owes Burroughs, Burroughs says he couldn’t afford him.
He then tells Belt that he had been tazed–that’s why he passed out. He should take acetaminophen, “the active ingredient in Tylenol.”
Part V is called Gates. Section one is “One Way to Think of It”
Belt and his dad are in Blimey’s Tavern and his dad is pretty excited both because of the money an because he beat up Chad-Kyle (although he thinks he should have hit Jonboat–while acknowledging that he realistically couldn’t have).
Surprisingly, we meets some new characters here. Jill the bartender and Clyde’s friend Biggie (who they are waiting for). At a nearby table, a guy named Herb says that Biggie should be coming soon. But Clyde wants to know how he is authority on Biggie’s ETA.
This scene with Clyde and Herb is very funny. Some highlights:
Clyde: “Herb’s from Boston, Billy. So he always has a hat on.”
Herb: “Hat’ got fuck-all to do with Boston.”
Herb’s from Boston, Bill, so he’s always saying “Fuck” sounds like “fack.” Herb’s from Boston so he became a private eye.
Herb says he doesn’t like this line of ribbing.
Clyde: “Line of ribbing. Is that what they call it in Boston?> Is that Bostonese for being called an asswipe at a tavern?”
Herb looks at Belt and says “I know he wont stop saying Boston and asswipe until I start laughing. But I don’t feel like laughing.”
Belt asks if he is really a private eye.
Clyde: “Private Browneye, the Boston asswipe.”
Herb’s card says Andrew Braintree [the last stop on the Boston T’s Red Line). “Herb” is the nickname Jill gave him because when he introduced himself he said to her, “I went to Exeter.” Jill says back home in Coheoes–near Albany we called the prep school kids Herbs (something to do with a Burger King commercial and an unattractive nerdy guy named Herb).
Herb goes on a little tangent about how much people are interested to hear he went to Exeter. He’s always worn it as a badge of honor. He learned to mention his school from a guy who “went to Harvard in Cambridge Massachusetts” (the Cambridge addition made me laugh).
Clyde says they always called him Andy until she came along and called him Herb. They liked her and wanted her to stick around so they called him Herb too. Clyde says maybe he was trying to impress Jill by saying he went to Exeter. Jill seems flattered and a date might just be in the offing after all this time.
Belt decides to ask Herb to look for Lisette. And while he is at it to look up Stevie as well. Herb does the work for free, although Belt buys him an expensive bottle of Scotch as payment.
The rest of the new people come into the bar. Biggie enters. His name is Zbignew but you can call him Z. Then an accountant they knew they called Wiz came over. They all argued over tax law, as Belt slipped away.
Then Rick came in, called Clyde an asshole and told them that Jim wet the bed again (I’m surprised this didn’t really go anywhere). Then in came Catrina Hogg to sell cures to Biggie and Wiz.
Part V, Section 2 is called “Seven Weeks” which I assumed was how long it took for Herb to find Lisette but seven weeks actually refers to how long it took Belt to write the transcript of A Fistful of Fists. (And for Herb to find Stevie).
Herb is the first time in the book where I really noticed the lack of the internet, for surely Belt could have done a lot of the work without Herb in just a few minutes.
But we get Belts’ take on writing the transcript. He says the work disturbed him. He knew he couldn’t fake the transcript, but he felt it betrayed his sensibilities. Watching it so much also made him need to get away from Blank. He started to wonder horrible things about Blank (what would it be like to popsicle him?). Oh, don’t go to the dark side Belt–you;re our moral center of sorts.
So she decided to keep Blank safe and to avoid him for a few hours after writing. He also felt that Blank wanted to distance itself from him.
Then Belt became responsible. He bought a truck. He opened a bank account, paid his taxes and returned his debt to Lotta. He also started buying his quills in bulk thereby saving money. He bought Clyde and Herb some Scotch. He also found that he liked the expensive Scotch too,. and although he never really drank before, he would probably start drinking this expensive stuff.
I’m not a drinker, so this list of flavors he could taste in the Scotch made me laugh:
Burned steak and marzipan
Mushrooms and grapefruit
Bband-Aids and lemon zest
Rubber bands and chocolate
The next day he was sitting outside of the mall and he saw a woman talking to a Zippo lighter. Holy cow, was she really talking to an inan?
No, she was on a headset (so there are wireless phones but no internet).
Belt covered his excitement by saying he liked the Zippo. He lit his Quill and then lit her Bijou. Her name was Denise and she is refreshingly straightforward.
There’s something sweet about you… you’re old school shy. You;re not like “on the spectrum” or “suffering from social anxiety.” You just have no idea how this is all supposed to go, and you’re afraid that if you say or do the wrong thing, you’ll make me uncomfortable. So I’m going to help you out if that’s alright with you.
The above is like wish fulfillment for any shy young guy (I wished every crush I had would say the above to me).
They go out for drinks which leads to sex and more sex. Belt writes during the day and goes to Denise’s at night. She is leaving for Chicago soon so that puts a terminus on their relationship anyway. She does spidge but doesn’t give him a hard time for not doing it.
Denise knew lots of old jokes. Her father’s father was “Simple” Simcha Simon a minor comedian on the Borscht Belt Circuit. What’s with all the “dad jokes” here?
There’s a wonderful call-back to Chad-Kyle and the Independence Formula. Denise couldn’t see him in Tuesday which was “Independence Day.” She’d be going to the flagship Graham&Swords PreForumlae Paradise to camp out all day for the midnight release with some friends from the Dollheart-Betty Group ad firm–some of whom had worked on the “Independence Day’s Arriving Late This Year” campaign. Denise would like to work at Dollheart-Betty in Chicago.
He was supposed to see Denise on Monday (their last night together) but Herb had information about Stevie. He had pictures from the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Prostitution. Turns out Stevie is married and living in Texas. She has been managing brothels for nearly a decade beginning with the Silver Star’n’Spur in Austin. Then she opened Derby’s Teapot–a chain of seven tearoom-themed brothels in Texas New Mexico and Arizona. Derby’s Teapot (a footnote tells us) refers to Slaughterhouse Five which Stevie read because of Belt. In the book, Poor Old Edgar Derby who is executed for stealing a teapot he found in the rubble after the bombing of Dresden.
Stevie’s husband is a novelist (which delights Belt). He is one of the major voices among that growing list of American and Canadian novelist referred to as either (depending on the critic) the Dystopian Utopians, or Feelgood Dystopians or Pseudo-Anti-Fascist-Crypto- Randian Fantasians.
Belt didn’t like his work much.
Herb tries to make Belt feel better. He says maybe Stevie is unhappy, just looking for an excuse to leave. Who can tell the state of a man’s oral health by looking at his picture. The rot might have already started setting in and once the gums start going they really start going. And if she knew he was waiting for her…
Jill overhears him and says “Here I thought I’d found myself a dedicated sweetheart and now I hear the bastard would walk out on my ass over a little gingivitis, as long as some old flame of his was waiting in the wings.”
But Herb says no to joke he’s afraid of “The chickens of my own irregular flossing habit one day coming home to roost and you leaving me.”
As this section comes to a close Belt reveals that he had been writing a novel but he had given that up to write this memoir telling us which sections he has written so far.
He then sent a copy of No Please Go to Stevie with a nice note (and no strings) and also signed a copy for Gus. There’s a brief glimpse into Part 2 of the novel in which Gil MacCaby wonders where he should walk now that he’s no longer looking for Bam Naka.
When he went to buy the stamps at the White Hen, Pang tells him there’s a five dollar minimum credit card charge (I love Pang, too). But this is not Pang, it is Clark: “Pang is my stupid dickhead brother.” They are identical twins. Belt doesn’t believe him–he is wearing Pang’s name tag. Eventually Belt pays in cash and Pang/Clark gave hi a Peppermint Patty. Belt says he doesn’t like them and Pang/Clark is surprised “Everyone likes these. They are minty.”
The section ends with a surprisingly sweet (and strangely happy) moment. Burroughs calls for an update on Belt’s progress. Belt is finished but doesn’t want to say that just yet so he says he is making good progress. Burroughs seems pleased. The Burroughs tells him that Valentine had been at the bank and heard a customer ask Chad-Kyle what had happened to his face and Chad-Kyle told an elaborate story about getting hit by a vintage Italian World War I helmet when he took on some guys who “were bothering a girl in a way I couldn’t stand for.” It was three against one but totally worth it.
Valentine;s teller was Lotta, she told him that the last time Chad-Kyle told the story it was a German helmet. Valentine and Lotta have been dating ever since (awww).
The en of this chapter should also raise a smile
Lotta said she knew Belt from the swingset murders and Burroughs said he remembered meeting Belt then too.
Belt remembers that too and that Burroughs didn’t reach out to shake his hand.
Burroughs remember it differently, “Snotty hotshot kid sees an employee of another kid, doesn’t reach out his hand to shake.”
“You were the adult, I was waiting for a cue.”
“I was somebody’s servant. You were the star of the evening.”
“I didn’t think of it that way.”
We laughed and hung up, then I wrote eleven pages.
Is Burroughs the hero of the story? Is Belt maturing? Will we see Triple-J’s reaction to Belt’s transcript? Was Denise a healthy relationship for Belt? How on earth can this story end?
Does the sweet/happy endings in these section bode for a very unhappy ending overall? Egads, what will the final 100 pages bring?
The next section is titled AOL. It’s the first explicit reference to a nonexistent internet and I’m very curious what it’s going to stand for.
In addition to Slaughterhouse Five and The Sun Also Rises, this section mentions a book by Bohumi Hrabal’s called I Served the King of England. I had not heard of this book or the author. Wikipedia says the story is set in Prague in the 1940s, during the Nazi occupation and early communism, and follows a young man who alternately gets into trouble and has successes [wow, thanks for that informative blurb]. Although the plot summary ends with [spoiler, I guess] the main character describing how he started to write the novel in the first place–so a touchstone for Belt, then.
Incidentally, I co-posted this on my own site which includes a “Soundtrack” for each post. All of the posts for Bubblegum will “feature” bubblegum pop songs. This week’s is Kasenetz-Katz Super Circus-“Up in the Air” (which has a fascinating history and is a bubblegum song that makes fun of Ronald Reagan!).