Los Angeles Review of Books

I KNOW WHAT GEORGE was wearing that night. Not because I remember, exactly, but because he always wore the same thing in those days: a pair of cut-off Levis, two or three frayed threads noodling over his knees, and a gray T-shirt stained with Jack Daniels. I also know, from his habits rather than from any particular memory, that as he told me his story he smoked one Kent after another and lined up the butts in a round gold ashtray on his desk. He had tied a blue scarf around his skull as a sweatband. He sipped his Jack from a chipped yellow glass and bobbed his head to Tom Petty as he fished up details of a New Orleans bar (sawdust on the floor, a black and white Magnavox tuned to the Saints over the racketing Foosball tables) where he’d once gotten into a fight over a woman he couldn’t remember. She was black. That’s about the best he could do.

I recall walking to George’s apartment that night, on a moonless, starlit street, past a Kwik-Lube and an E-Z Mart, wondering, When did Houston get so ugly, its signs so hideously illiterate? I guess I was in a bad mood.

I remember he made me laugh. He always made me laugh. I remember his drinking, worse than usual, had me worried. I wish I could remember his soft, lovely voice: a poet’s voice, full of music, quips, and quirks. Oh, I do remember it, of course, it plays in my head, but no louder than the hiss on a car radio when you’ve traveled too far and the oldies station should be on the dial but can’t be located anymore. I lost the cassette tape — and the machine, defunct technology — on which I recorded George that night. Except as down-low static, his voice is no longer available to me.

I had asked him to tell me the story of the bar fight as part of an assignment I’d received from a linguistics teacher. “Get someone you know quite well to tell you a story,” the teacher had said. “Record it and transcribe it word for word. A week or so later, ask the person to type out the sequence of events.” It was an exercise comparing writing to speech. How would the accounts differ in specifics and tone? What factors — the intimacy of face to face, the booze, and Tom Petty, as opposed to enforced solitude, a lengthier time for reflection — would explain the differences? Beforehand, I could guess that the written version would end up more formally structured. Writing is self-conscious in a way that shooting the shit with a friend is not.

In any case, over the years, along with my cassette tapes, I misplaced the transcript of George’s story and his written testimony. I can’t tell you now the name of the bar where George took a swing at a guy. I can’t say what was so fine, if anything, about the woman he fought for. What did I learn from the linguistics exercise? Hard to say. What I remember is my friend, dead now from lung cancer. (All those damn cigarettes!)

No.

I don’t remember him nearly well enough.

What I remember when I remember my friend is how much I miss him, his sweetness, his musical voice.

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Which is to say that, at this stage of my life, neither speaking nor writing is worth a damn. Talk is cheap. Writing is even cheaper. (Think: ad copy. Kwik-Lube Will Get You On the Move!) Words cannot return my friend to me. Yet the memory of his speech, and his writing (if I had not been so careless as to lose it), serve as companions for me in his absence. Good company.

So I’m wrong.

Words are worth something, after all.

Perhaps language’s greatest pleasure is its self-negating quality, its ability to start an argument with itself, to get a dialogue going: the very essence of companionship.

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About argument: In Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing, Peter Elbow says,

Because writing can conserve speech — speech that time wipes out — it tends to function as a conservative force — in the various senses of the word. By preserving texts, writing is usually a force for stability. […] And yet, paradoxically, writing can help those who resist tradition. “It is only in a literate culture that the past’s inconsistencies have to be accounted for, a process that encourages skepticism and forces history to diverge from myth.”

So I argue with myself.

The myth of my friend George (not because the details are false, but because I’ve given them an amber glow, by now, in repeated anecdotes): his sweetness, his musical voice.

George’s actual history: bar fights, too much smoking and drinking. I remember he cut short the story of the fight that night because he had a rendezvous with his upstairs neighbor, a woman with whom he was having an affair. She worked in a hospital down the street. He didn’t know her name. He called her The Nurse.

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Elbow’s title, Vernacular Eloquence, echoes the title of Dante’s revolutionary book from the early 14th century, De Vulgari Eloquentia, in which Dante argued that the “vernacular spoken language of his region of Italy was ‘nobler’ than the Latin used for any serious writing at the time.” Dante praised the “language of children and illiterate women,” its directness, the intensity of its feeling, preferring it to stuffy, official texts decreeing this, that, and the other (including how people should write). When he penned The Divine Comedy, Dante scored the music of Eternity to the language of nursemaids.

I remember now the name of the bar. The Rabbit Hole. The meditative state of mind induced by writing has just called forth these words. Does the name of the place make George — his past, his motives for fighting there — come any clearer?

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That certain properties of speech can enliven writing is a delightful discovery. Fragments. Interjections. Sidetracks and meanders. Directness. Useful repetitions.

Elbow points out that writing often tends toward nominalization, that is, turning actions into entities, verbs into nouns. He offers the following example: “The conversion of hydrogen to helium in the interiors of stars is the source of energy for their immense output of heat and light.” Note how the action of the chemical transformation is a done deal, all neatly packaged in a phrase: the “conversion of hydrogen.” This language has the advantage of compression, a valued quality in formal writing, but it doesn’t put out much heat. Furthermore, Elbow says, nominalization emphasizes product over process. What gets the nod here is the “source of energy” (following the only verb in the sentence: “is”), as opposed to the process, front and center, in a verby, more speech-like sentence such as, “Stars convert hydrogen to helium, and that’s how they get enough energy to radiate heat and light.”

When we worry about compression and the like, we feel hidden eyes on us, the eyes of Tradition, of wrist-slappers wielding sharp wooden rulers. We feel the presence of power and hierarchy. Of judgment.

When we speak most freely, we feel comfortable. Or: we feel comfortable, so we’re able to speak more freely. Booze can help. So can Tom Petty. The presence of a friend.

These days, when I hear George’s voice most clearly in my head, it’s not generalized the way writing often is; I mean, I don’t succeed at overlaying the memory of his voice onto any old phrase. When I hear him now, it’s in the form of something I actually did hear him say over and over, “Lord love a duck!” when he was happy or surprised, or “I was drunk as a skunk that night.” Or I hear a memorable sentence from a very specific occasion — say, the day he called to tell me about his cancer: “Shit, I’m in trouble, man.”

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Elbow notes writing’s tendency to move forward into left-branching rather than right-branching structures.

Here’s a left-branching sentence: “Compelling me to examine the history as well as the myths of my friend, this essay serves to clarify George to me as well as to the reader.”

A right-brancher: “This essay clarifies George to me and the reader by compelling me to examine his history as well as his myths.”

The lefty forces us to bear in mind the first part of the sentence, without quite knowing what it means, while we wait for the explanatory context. Speech is more likely to produce a right-branching sentence. When we talk we’re typically less concerned with formality or elegance. We want to get to the point. Naturally, Elbow argues that writing can benefit from this impulse. It’s good to get to the point. The child wants her supper. The nursemaid wants her bedpan. The poet wants his Heaven.

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The woman’s name was Jamie. I remember now. Jamie in The Rabbit Hole.

The whole point of speaking and writing is to organize experience, preserve and remember. Yet George admitted he couldn’t clearly recall Jamie, and his accounts of her differed. She was the missing center of his story, and now of this essay.

As he spoke about his bar fight, George’s tone swung from cavalier to fatherly (from Yeah, I was a bad-ass to Don’t try this). George was a few years older than I was and liked to give me life lessons. Of course, his tone loosened up as he drained the bottle of Jack, cranked up Damn the Torpedoes (“Break down, go ahead and give it to me!”), and the clock ticked toward his assignation with The Nurse.

All of this — the story-telling occasion — is hard to replicate on the page. On the page, tone depends on word choice, word order. Syntax. Rhythm. Sound. If I could voodoo up the verbal equivalent of rock ‘n’ roll, bourbon, and erotic anticipation, I’d be cooking with gas. Elbow mentions “intonation units,” measuring the amount of information a person can absorb at any moment, usually timed to an inhale or an exhale, breath as sense. Reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock — his rule for movie length: a motion picture should never be longer than the human bladder’s capacity for holding its piss.

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The night George talked about Jamie, he voiced a particular version of himself, perhaps for his entertainment as well as mine, but also, in his fatherly mode, as a way of instructing me about the wages of drunkenness and foolish infatuation. What I remember about the spoken version of the story is a hum of embarrassment beneath a boastful scrim: I knocked that asshole clear into the next county but then I turned to look at Jamie and Good Lord, that woman was foul, what was I thinking?

By contrast, the written account was forgiving. Self-justifying. Of course I got drunk. Look what that woman had done to me. But seriously, she was fine! With only himself for company, George was gentler with the man in the mirror.

Which account was history? Myth?

And my role as hearer? As reader? On reflection (that is, as I write this) it seems to me now that George’s drinking that night had to do with me, with the fact that I’d asked him for a story about his bad behavior, and that, as an older man, a man looking out for me, he felt conflicted about that. How would he pitch his persona? If he played the fool — for laughs, for the sake of imparting bitter wisdom — would he diminish himself in my eyes? Would our friendship suffer?

Alone, George was closer to talking to himself. To what degree that admitted more honesty, only he knew.

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The profoundest knowledge, says Peter Elbow, is the “linguistic knowledge that’s in the body.” The body that speaks, whose words are lost to time. The body that forgets. And dies.

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When it came time for George to meet The Nurse, he saw me to the door (following me, on his way up the wooden staircase in the hallway, with a fresh bottle of Jack in his hand). I walked back down the moonless street past the Kwik-Lube and the E-Z Mart. Above me, hydrogen was turning into helium. In the store’s parking lot I noticed two medics loading a stretcher into the back of an ambulance. On it was an unconscious woman. Young. Black. From a distance, I watched a cop interrogate a drunk white dude sitting on the curb in front of the store, next to an old yellow Mustang. Its driver’s side door hung open. I gathered he had pulled into the parking lot too fast and struck the woman, who was now speeding toward the hospital down the street.

It occurred to me: The Nurse might get paged for emergency duty. Abandoned, George could return to his apartment, give me a call, and finish his story for me.

The young man referred to his car as “the beater.” “I’ve driven this ol’ beater for years. I knew what I’s doin’. Trust me, man.” The cop called the Mustang “the vehicle.” “Isn’t it the case that you were operating the vehicle at an excessive rate of speed?” Writing-gear speech (Elbow calls it), nowhere near the young man’s universe of discourse. What could these guys possibly say to each other?

And the woman? Let’s call her Jamie. I’ll wager that, no matter what was said or written that night on the policeman’s pad in the parking lot, neither the cop nor the driver of the beater would remember her later. Not nearly well enough.

And so, while George and The Nurse have at it (God bless you, man, have yourself a ball), and E and Z flicker mutely at the sky, let’s try to stop time, to organize and preserve our thoughts. Just for a moment. A spot, as Wordsworth would have it. No speech. No scribbled testimonies.

Silence. (Is it possible to write silence?)

Here’s to Jamie.

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Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Joan Didion, The Last Love Song, will be published next year by St. Martin’s.