Friday, March 2, 2018

Trailer Park Flora

No, this isn’t about Flora, the golden-hearted prostitute who makes the rounds of the trailer parks. In Tucson, when you see a big stand of the tall, thin palms called Washingtonians, you’re probably close to one of the city’s old trailer parks. The slenderest and tallest of the palms are a naturally occurring species in the Sonoran Desert, Washingtonia robusta, which can reach eighty or ninety feet high. A slightly thicker and shorter variety, the California fan palm, Washingtonia filifera, can be found all over Tucson as well, but has less of the slim elegance of robusta, which is sometimes called the Mexican fan palm.
            The settled communities that these old trailer parks have become defies the association of transience and impermanence trailers have. There are 430 trailer parks in the county, representing ten percent of the living spaces. Many of them exist because about a quarter of Arizona families spend more than half their income on housing, and trailers are an answer to that huge economic bite. But the culture of the long-established trailer parks is that of an older, more well-off, and economically more stable crowd. They live in trailer parks, yes, but ones that have become settled communities, rivaling neighborhoods of pre-WWII houses, and adorned with some of the oldest and most magnificent tall palms to be found in the city. Some of the people in these parks may still be winter residents only, but a lot of them clearly decided a long time ago that this was the place to be year-round.
            Not as visible as the palms from a distance but usually bordering these parks, equally aged and impressive, are the Burbank prickly pears that massively hedge and enclose them. At the beginning of the twentieth century Luther Burbank hybridized two Mexican varieties of prickly pear to produce these cacti. Burbank was looking for a cactus that could feed cattle, and found it. But in this part of Arizona people saw these heavy, substantial, thornless cacti as good substitutes for hedges and fences. Occasionally a property owner would back up a line of Burbanks with a simple post-and-rail fence. But with or without the fence, the arrangement required little maintenance and the plants needed no water beyond the sparse desert rainfall.
            Tall palm and giant prickly-pear trailer parks are not everywhere in Tucson, but there are enough to be familiar landmarks in the cityscape. Another kind of flora, less conspicuous from a distance but equally old, marks a separate group of trailer parks.
            I suppose the palm and cactus plantings were appealing to those ready to embrace the move to the southwest from wherever they came. But a park with more greenery might have appealed to people not ready for a clean break with the grass and shrubs of the states they left behind. And there are parks in Tucson where the plants, though as old as the cactus and palms in other parks, offered more shade and verdant prospects. Typical of the latter is a trailer park on Limberlost Drive called Vista del Norte—and it does indeed have a splendid view of the Santa Catalina Mountains to the north. This park is bordered with the tallest oleanders I’ve ever seen. I think they may be twenty feet tall, and they challenge the overhead phone and electrical wires in places. Twenty feet is the maximum height for oleanders, according to the scientific literature.
            These are white-flowering oleanders. Red and pink ones are popular elsewhere in town, but almost all the old ones I see are white. Nerium oleander is so widely cultivated that no one knows in what part of the world it originated, but it was probably somewhere in south Asia. Like the palm and cacti, oleander is also drought-resistant, though it needs some watering beyond the local rainfall, and it is not easily swept away in gully-washers when the rains do come. When it grows to these sizes it is virtually opaque to prying eyes and thus functions well as a boundary hedge.
            Possibly the only disadvantage of the plant is that all of its part are toxic to people and some animals. A fanciful etymology has its name deriving from the Greek ολλυω ανδρα, “I kill man.”
            Vista del Norte also has some very large eucalyptus trees. This is the Australian coolibah, the tree under which the swagman camped in “Waltzing Matilda.” Eucalyptus microtheca has been a very popular import in southern Arizona because it grows fast and resists heat. The tree is dense enough to be useful for shade and as a windbreak, like the oleander.
            Surrounded by palm and cactus or by oleander and eucalyptus, the folks in these trailer parks have been living there long enough to qualify as real desert rats—a term of affection around here. Children and grandchildren have been born and have grown up while these plantings around them also matured. Now the palms, oleander and eucalyptus are tall enough to be landmarks and as elegant in their way as the landscaping in much richer neighborhoods.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

"Let's Split Up!"

Have you ever noticed that the characters in horror movies don’t seem to have ever seen a horror movie? So the two young couples arrive at the supposedly haunted house, and as soon as they’re inside the front door, the pushy one says, “Let’s split up!” The Nastiness is thus enabled to pick them off one by one. Except for the introverted one who didn’t want to be in on the expedition in the first place. He or she escapes from the evil clutches, runs out to a car, jumps inside, and drives away. Does she look in the back seat? No. Does she look on the roof? No.
            At first, intelligence is all on the side of the evil ones in horror movies. Then, after unthinking innocence comes to what the Brits call a sticky end—again and again—the remaining good person finds it has a forebrain. Then it’s only a matter of time—and more ghastly attrition among the now smart good person’s friends—before evil is routed.
            Stephen King, who is as clear and fascinating in nonfiction prose as he is intense and scary in his fiction, wrote about the mechanics of horror in a 1981 book titled Danse Macabre. King begins his survey of the horror genre from 1950-1980 by describing the night of October 4, 1957, when his watching of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers was interrupted with the news of Sputnik. He introduces the fear of the Russians and nuclear holocaust in order to answer the question why we read/watch what frightens us: “The answer seems to be that we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”
            King says the horror story works on a surface or literal level of terror, a deeper level of horror where what we are really afraid of is touched, and a visceral level of revulsion.  In talking about monsters: “when we discuss monstrosity, we are expressing our faith and belief in the norm and watching for the mutant.  The writer of horror fiction is neither more nor less than an agent of the status quo.” He does not shy away from the idea that there is often an element of racism in genre fiction.
            King discusses Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, and Frankenstein, as a means of grounding horror fiction and presenting the monsters that, like Tarot card figures, are beneath most horror fiction: the Vampire, the Werewolf, the Thing Without a Name, and the Ghost. 
            King gives us some autobiography—dowsing for water with Uncle Clayt, a father who left when he was two but who had a cache of horror paperbacks young King found, his first viewing of Creature from the Black Lagoon. He looks at radio in the fifties and points out the imaginative advantage it has—the movie has to show the scary thing sooner or later.  In discussing Val Lewton’s The Cat People (1942), he points out that the movies have to rely on state-of-the-art visualization, which dates them and makes them less scary because less believable.
            Movies often reveal what’s troubling society at the time.  Death and decay, he says, are particularly scary “in a society where such a great store is placed in the fragile commodities of youth, health, and beauty.”  The Exorcist was so popular, he suggests, because we were in a phase of teenagers asserting their tastes, scares about juvenile delinquency, young people asserting political power, and so on.  “The children of World War II produced The Thing” and the love generation produced Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  The Stepford Wives [the first one] has some witty things to say about Women’s Liberation, and some disquieting things to say about the American male’s response to it.”
            At times King is very self-aware: discussing the occasional prolixity of Bradbury, King writes, “’When you open your mouth, Stevie,’ my grandfather once said to me in despair, ‘your guts fall out.’”  At other times, he is less so: he unloads on “academic bullshit” and then proceeds himself to unload what looks a lot like the same commodity. For example, King often has recourse to the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy: the Apollonian is the realm of the rational, the everyday, and the normal; the Dionysian of the emotional, the mutant, and the out-of-this-world or uncontrollable alter-ego.
            Danse Macabre is an ambitious book that tries at once to survey horror films during the period King was growing up, to look back at literary classics of horror, and to talk about the mechanics of making a scene scary. King is not completely successful at these varied goals, but he always speaks from the authoritative viewpoint of one who has been both the scarer and the scaree.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

A Comic Escape Story

I have just finished reading Henri Charrière’s, Papillon (1969) in an English translation by June P. Wilson and Walter B Michaels, done the year after the French edition was published. It was a best seller and there was soon a movie with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
Charrière treats us to two different escapes in the first half of the book. Both are spectacular: the first because of the escape from the infirmary on the mainland of French Guiana, the kind and grisly help of the nearby leper colony, and the successful sailing voyage first to Trinidad and then to Colombia, where only his having to stand in so close to the shore to drop off the three prisoners who were essentially interlopers got Papillon caught because the wind dropped. The next, solo escape of Papillon is successful and leads to whole new life among the Guajira Indians with two wives, both pregnant when Papillon decides he must resume his absurd plan to avenge himself on those who condemned him in Paris. This very conventional element of the story (one of many) is dropped without another mention at the end.
            A failed series of attempts to escape from the Colombian prison of Barranquila approaches the comic, with Papillon and his comrades getting progressively more damaged with each attempt, until finally they try to blow a hole in the wall of the prison, through which Papillon, unable to walk, will be carried. Everything fails.
            Papillon minutely describes the way he coped with two years of solitary confinement on Ile Saint-Joseph, and here it is difficult to avoid the conventional, since everyone in such a situation tallies the days somehow. When he returned to Royal Island, he had a complicated wooden raft ready for his escape attempt when another convict, whom Papillon later stabbed after provoking him to draw his knife, told the authorities. An eight-year sentence of solitary was reduced when Papillon heroically tried to save a girl who had fallen into the sea and was surrounded by sharks.
            Papillon feigns insanity and another attempt from the asylum on Royal Island fails. He manages to get to Devil’s Island, and from there the most spontaneous and reckless of all his cavales or escape attempts, succeeds; it involves throwing himself into an unusually large wave as it crashes against the rocks, with only bags of coconuts to buoy him up. He makes it to the mainland, but then there is quicksand that swallows a companion. The brother of a Chinese friend Papillon met on Devil’s Island helps him, and they sail a boat to British Guiana. After a short stay Papillon sails with other convicts to Venezuela, where, after a stay in a cruel detainment camp, he is released and eventually becomes a Venezuelan citizen.
            There are many funny moments in this book, as well as ongoing jokes. One of the latter is Papillon’s shifting relationship with god, whom he has not been raised to worship or even think about, but Papi takes the time to curse him in the middle or end of one of his many failed cavales. But when he finally succeeds—in the least thought out, most spontaneous, and even reckless attempts, he suddenly develops a warm, fuzzy relationship with God, whom he’s willing to forgive for having finally come through.
            Certain parts of the book strike me as conventional narratives, including the visit to the leper colony in the first successful escape. The finger stuck to Papillon’s coffee cup is over the top. But then so is the final, successful cavale. How exactly does an ordinary criminal get sent to the island for political prisoners, so he can muse on what Dreyfus was thinking as he looked out to sea? And the coconut sack water wings, the jumping into the big wave—not the ninth wave, à la Eugene Burdick, but the seventh—the friend who gets sucked under by the quicksand, and so on. I loved the pig who shows the Chinese where to walk to avoid the quicksand, though I think that bit might be a steal from The Hound of the Baskervilles. I point out my reactions not to disparage the book, because they just make it more interesting. For one thing, I don’t know anything about how the conventionality of slave or captivity narratives plays against or is separable from “the truth.” But I suspect conventions are irresistible. If you don’t carve dates on the wall of your solitary chamber, you do something to mark the time. No one denies that Papillon brought off seemingly impossible escapes. The only thing I will not accept as other than impossible is his publisher’s assertion that all he did was correct the punctuation.
            The book is also so very French. You will have your favorite places where something Charrière expresses seems so very obvious to him when it is not so to you, but for me the funniest French attitude in the book is that when you speak rationally to your captors, they will simply have to see it your way. And they do.