Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Stretch on the River

Richard Bissell (1915-1977) was an American novelist, best known for The Pajama Game, the Broadway musical based on his novel 7 1/2 Cents. Bissell was born and raised in Dubuque, Iowa, and graduated from Harvard in 1936. On his graduation, he shipped out as an ordinary seaman with the American Export Lines. He also served time in his family's garment factory, and during the war served as a deckhand, mate and master on the Mississippi, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, Monongahela and St. Croix rivers.

In 1950, Bissell published A Stretch On The River, one of the greatest American novels ever written. I hate to reduce it to a synopsis, because there really is no story, but the basic premise is that in the early 1940s, a young college graduate named Bill Joyce, jaded and disillusioned with the posh life afforded him by his father's high-class bootlegging business, signs aboard the diesel towboat Inland Coal as a deckhand.
"I better get in the Army, Georgie. They're already starting to talk." 
"I love that line," Georgie said. "All our lives we been reading Remarque and telling each other what a line of cheese all that war stuff is. Now the Community Band goes down the street with the cornets playing flat on the high notes and right away you wanna get in the army. Smarten up, Bill. You and I don't have to prove nothing. The one thing we have in common is we don't give a damn for nobody or nothing." 
People were doing the most peculiar things in those days. 
"Smarten up, boy," he said. "Leave the dumbbells settle the war. Remember the line we was brought up on? 'Cannon fodder.' Remember Paul Baumer? Remember Katczinsky? Smarten up."
The novel, however, is not about coal or the Mississippi or the war. It is a brilliant character study about the men who work the barges, from the deckhands to the cooks to the cabin boys to the captain. Bissell's ear for dialogue is stunning:
"What about this here Hitler?" Diamond said. 
"No good," I said. 
"That's the way I figure him. And them French and English, too. I wouldn't trust none of them. They . . . " 
"Hey, wait a minute," I said. "They're on our side." 
"I don't give a ----- what side they're on. Take this here Duke of Windor, all he wanted to do was get to be King. He is so sore they won't let him be King he marries this here American girl and figures he'll be King of the U.S.A., by god, if he can't be King of England." 
"But god damn it, man, he already was King. They bounced him out because he married Simpson." 
"Sure, that's what they say. You wouldn't expect them to come right out and admit it, would you?" 
"Admit what?" 
"Why that he wants to kick out the Congress and run it like them old-time kings." 
"But he hasn't even been to the U.S. yet, and they bounced him out over there four or five years ago already." 
"How do you know he ain't been here yet? They never tell you nothing." 
"But, damn it, Diamond . . ."
and he often rises to pure poetry in his prose:
The trouble with steamboating is, there's too much of it. You can't get away from it. In the morning when the barges were wet with the dew and the hot cakes downed in Karo, all good high school graduates were sitting in clean buses reading the box scores on the night games, but we were on our knees scrubbing the pilothouse floor; at noon, when the boys were hard at the egg salad sandwiches at Walgreen's and the girls were sipping their iced tea, we lay down in our dirty bunks to listen to the luncheon music of the Diesels; in the evening, when the marquee lights commenced to twinkle in the streets and the couples strolled past the dime store windows, we arose from our sad blankets and went at it again. And in the middle of the night, when the kids were asleep in their trundle beds, the clock ticking in the kitchen and the mice making merry in the breadbox, we were still at it, pumping the barges, painting the hold, mumbling, spitting, rolling cigarettes, wondering what was doing on Main Street, and feeling sorry for ourselves. And it was a dismal feeling when we passed some little river town in the early evening and heard a bicycle bell under the trees.
Now this young lady was perfectly beautiful and she did not read Vogue magazine, discuss Braque, Albright or Rouault, did not have to be cajoled and flattered into bedding, or act real peppy and cute. She did not try to talk like Hepburn or to put character in her handwriting by separating all the letters, nor did she talk sexy and then run for cover when cornered. She shut up when she had nothing to say. She did not quit drinking at a party for fear she might say something natural; neither did she get drunk and blow lunch. She did not live on fruit salad and diet pills. If she felt like it she chewed gum. She did not claim to like or know anything about prize fighting or baseball. She did not say she wished she had time to read some really good books. She did not give a good god damn what kind of hat the girl at the next table had on. She didn't want to go to Hollywood and see the homes of the stars. And loving was her middle name.
After you have been on the river long enough to get the disease, everything looks different: Chicago is a town 200 miles east of the river. South Dakota is someplace west of Minneiska and of no interest as it hasn't even a mile of Mississippi River in the whole state. Lake Superior is an inferior watery deposit of some kind, in a general northeasterly direction from Grey Cloud Landing. And as for St. Louis, Quincy, Davenport, Moline, Rock Island, Dubuque, La Crosse, Winona -- what are they? River towns, of course. Not towns -- river towns. And what a difference that makes.
What possible charm can we attach to any of these towns other than that the Mississippi River flows past them, touches them? What is John Deere at Moline? French and Hecht at Davenport? Standard Lumber Co. at Dubuque? Ah, we love and cherish these mammoth enterprises because they are by the river. What is left of glamour at Reads Landing? A store with Rice Krispies -- and the river. McGregor, Iowa, is all tired out but the river keeps it on the map. Lancing, Iowa, would be worse than South Dakota -- but it's on the river, and in the evening it's better than Lake Louise. 
These grand old towns are pretty much shot, now. The aristocracy has fallen from the firmament and there are no bankers who read Greek in the evening. Papa and the Kellys and the Schwartzes are the new aristocracy, and they live in plastic houses with electric cocktail shakers and not a piece of reading material in sight. And the new sophistications of the inhabitants has systematically eliminated all action, drama, excitement, and color from the scene. My home town used to have a baseball team in the Mississippi Valley League and a ball park with pop vendors in lovely soiled white jackets. It's gone. We used to have an Amusement Park, a roller coaster, and a Bier-Garten. All gone. We used to have a Fair Grounds, and open-air trolleys to the scene. Gone. And a racetrack and trotting races. Gone. We used to have a millionaire who kept peacocks on the lawn, had a private trotting track, and arrived at the mill in a white suit via 1912 Mercedes limousine. Most completely gone. Why there's nothing really left there at all except the lights in front of the movie houses and 60,000 people criticizing each other and buying new-model radios. Except the river. That makes it a place. It's on the river. 
Aside from the river my town is like every other American town -- the fourteen-year-old girls run around Main Street half naked all summer and the evening paper is filled with sex crimes perpetrated on fourteen-year-old girls. And we have the usual town characters -- a half-wit who is a scream, and a bartender who eats lighted matches; but what makes my town worth coming home to? Why, the river, naturally; if I had lived in Fort Dodge or Topeka, I wouldn't even have come home for the burial of relatives.
My favorite part of the book, and the most accomplished piece of writing, is Chapter 18, wherein Shorty the deckhand trips, falls under the bow of the barge, and drowns. The chapter is one big five-page stream-of-consciousness paragraph of Shorty's thoughts as he dies, and it is brilliant.

The tone of the book is low-key in its detachment and indifference to the outcome of events. His relationship with his girlfriend in St. Paul is remarkably mature and sexual for a book written in 1950, and there is not a trace of sentimentality in any of the characters. There is not a single dated note in the whole book.

I was an English major in college (Elizabethan literature, to be precise), and I have read enough pieces of crap labeled "great literature" to choke a horse. A Stretch On The River is the real thing.

Bissell wrote some other books (The Monongahela, Goodbye Ava, You Can Always Tell A Harvard Man, Still Circling Moose Jaw), one of which, Say Darling, was also produced on Broadway. Later in life, he bought a river towboat and was known as the only author since Mark Twain to have both a master and pilot license, all tonnage, for the Upper Mississippi and Upper Monongahela Rivers. He belonged to eleven historical societies and collected everything from antique cars to saloon pianos. His prize possession was a majestic eleven-foot mirror from Mark Twain's New York house. He and his wife and four kids divided their time between their 1909 Stanford White house in Fairfield, Connecticut, a summer house in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and various travel locations. He died in 1977.

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