JUDY KRAVIS

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Friday, 16 October 2020

 AN UNFORGETTABLE BOOK, A MIGHTY MOVIE, A MAGNIFICENT AND ENDURING ADDITION TO THE GREAT BOOKS OF AMERICANA. 

This is the publisher's blurb on the back of my Corgi Western edition of Shane, by Jack Shaefer. Shane is the second movie book I've read recently. The other is The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West, which is not so much Americana as the neurosis of Americana in the Hollywood of the late 1930s. 

As we near the end of Shane, language goes up a few notches. Here is Shane, the slim, dark, mysterious stranger with no past, just after he has wiped out the two baddies in a saloon shootout.

How could one describe it, the change that came over him? Out of the mysterious resources of his will the vitality came. It came creeping, a tide of strength that crept through him and fought and shook off the weakness. It shone in his eyes and they were were alive again and alert. It welled up in him, sending that familiar power surging through him again until it was singing again in every vibrant line of him.

The story is narrated through a boy's hero-worship. Shane's saving of the homesteaders' livelihood in the face of threat from a wealthy cattleman, is converted into hope for the boy's future. Shane has killed so that the boy can grow up strong and straight and look after his loving and worthy parents. Shane was the man, as the closing words of the book have it, 'who rode into our little valley out of the heart of the great glowing West and when his work was done rode back whence he had come and he was Shane'. Americana is built on this kind of simplicity—mythic, and entirely without guile. It has spawned many other such tales. Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider, for example. 

The film of Shane does the book every kind of favour by drenching the Wyoming landscape in lush cinematography, so much so that the book is pallid by comparison. The film version of The Day of the Locust, on the other hand, stands or falls by the performance of Donald Sutherland as Homer Simpson (no relation), principally his nervous watery eyes and his uncontrollable hands.     

From the start Homer's  hands have a life of their own, separate from the rest of his body.

One day, while opening a can of salmon for lunch, his thumb received a nasty cut. Although the wound must have hurt, the calm, slightly querulous expression he usually wore did not change. The wounded hand writhed about on the kitchen table until it was carried to the sink by its mate and bathed tenderly in hot water.

Ten pages later his hands keep his thoughts busy.

They trembled and jerked, as thought troubled by dreams. To hold them still, he clasped them together. Their fingers twined like a tangle of thighs in miniature. He snatched them apart and sat on them.

Near the end of the novella Homer's hands are playing  'Here's the church, here's the steeple', over and over. Tod, the narrator, who is a scenic artist, is watching.

It was the most complicated tic Tod had ever seen. What made it particularly horrible was its precision. It wasn't pantomime, as he had first thought, but manual ballet.

When Tod saw the hands start to crawl out again, he exploded.

'For Christ's sake!'

The hands struggled to get free, but Homer clamped his knees shut and held them.

'I'm sorry,' he said.

The final scene of violence and bedlam that brings to life the creatures of Tod's picture called The Burning of Los Angeles is, like the shootout in Shane, better in the film. Bedlam is laborious in narrative. Better, that is, for generations who grew up on intensive visuals. Homer's hands finally work free, and it is no triumph. Nor is it a piece of redemptive Americana. 

Shane was published in 1949, The Day of the Locust, ten years early in 1939. Ten years, a world war and a large-scale depression, were enough to foster the return of mythic America. 

                                                      

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