Back to my roots: Pulp Teaching and the defense of the middle brow

I am “PulpTeacher”–celebrator of the middle brow, defender of abused genres, scourge of those who venerate and genuflect before “the classics” and who forget Horace’s dictum that art “should delight and instruct.” I can hear the calls from ivory towers everywhere that I should have my poetic license revoked, that I should go back to telling students that they should bow down before the canon, that they should just take my word for it that Shakespeare and Milton, James and Twain, are beyond any questioning of their greatness. (And I do love Shakespeare and Milton–not so much on James and Twain–but I also love James Lee Burke, George Pelecanos, and Michael Connelly, Christopher Nolan and Stephen Spielberg, Michael Crichton and Ted Chiang and scores of other allegedly second, third, and fourth-shelf artists).

There is a continuum in art (literature and film included) that should have us take a look at something as otherwise pedestrian as the writing of Jack DuBrul. I have read three of DuBrul’s novels: Havoc, Pandora’s Curse, and Deep Fire Rising. His recurring hero is Philip Mercer, a great geologist. DuBrul is a serious if limited craftsperson and you can learn lots about mining, exploring, geology, and related subjects in reading the novels. DuBrul intends to delight and instruct and for the most part he succeeds. His novels are what we might call “reality-fantasies” like much popular, escapist entertainment. Mercer’s skills are extraordinary and he is actually a throw-back in some ways as he is remarkably noble and gracious with no shadow side that drives him. The plot of each novel can be rendered thusly: Mercer gets called into some geologically-related activity; there is much more to this than meets the eye; there is a beautiful woman who will share the adventure with Mercer; shootouts, violence, hairbreadth escapes will occur; usually there is a particularly physically menacing henchman that Mercer will deal with; and Mercer’s sidekicks will remain stable.

I quote a page-long passage from Havoc below as Mercer’s octogenarian, chain-smoking sidekick and friend, Harry, talks with Mercer about his loss of a woman he actually LOVED. This presents DuBrul with a problem–the woman cannot live because then Mercer would marry and would no longer be “Mercer” (lots of Romantic Hero things to consider here from Robin Hood and Don Quixote to Shane and Josey Wales to Han Solo and James Bond). So DuBrul kills off the lovely Tisa in a previous novel–but this presents another problem–how should Mercer, a man not really given to reflection, respond to this tragedy? The following passage with my intermittent commentary in bold:

“Harry noted the tension creeping into Mercer’s neck and saw the shadow lingering in his storm gray eyes when he turned from the map. ‘You were attracted to her.’ [Yikes! “storm gray eyes,” wow is this clunky]
‘She was attractive,’ Mercer admitted.
‘Quit dodging. That’s not what I asked.’
No matter how much Mercer wanted to avoid the issue, he knew his friend wouldn’t let him. ‘Yes, I was attracted to her.’
‘She’s the first since Tisa and now you feel guilty about it.’
‘Yeah.’
‘Six months is an eternity and it’s the blink of an eye. I can’t tell you how to feel about this but I will tell you that being attracted to another woman is not a bad thing. You do realize that since Tisa died you’ve held yourself to a standard most married men can’t touch. Guys find women attractive every damned day and you can bet that not one of them feels the least bit guilty. But you, you see it as an act of deepest betrayal. This isn’t mourning, Mercer, it’s self-inflicted punishment.
‘What if I can’t help it?’
‘You’ve always found a way in the past.’
‘What do you mean?’
Harry lit another cigarette, gathering his thoughts. ‘You beat yourself up every time something in your life goes wrong. You blame yourself whether it’s your fault or not. Most people don’t take responsibility when they screw up but you do even if you don’t. [This point about Mercer’s feeling of responsibility for everything is made over and over again] This isn’t a character flaw, or maybe it is but not a bad one to have, except each time it costs you a little more to find your center again and come to grips with whatever just happened. It’s been six months since you lost Tisa and you’re no closer to putting her death behind you.’
Mercer’s anger flared. ‘I won’t put her behind me.’
‘Not her, you dope, her death. You haven’t put her death behind you. There’s a distinction and maybe that’s where you’re stuck.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I bet you relive her death every day but don’t relive her life.’ Mercer didn’t deny it so Harry continued. ‘You turned her into the symbol of some perceived failure, a memory where you can unload all the guilt you carry around. You don’t celebrate the short time you were with her and that’s not very fair. To her I mean.’
Mercer was rocked by what Harry had said. In a rush he realized it was all true. Tisa’s memory had become a wound he would reopen just so he could revel in the guilt he was certain he deserved. This wasn’t mourning. It was self-flagellation and was actually a little sick. He’d made her death about him and in doing so reduced her life to something he could blame himself for.” [That last line makes this passage worth reading–it reflects a human truth that many of us, scratch that, ALL of us do sometimes–we make “it” about ourselves and thereby reduce someone else’s life to a prop in our lives]

Big deal, I can almost hear, so the blind squirrel finds an acorn every once in a while. True–and the blind squirrel gives hope (like the stopped clock) to all of us who stumble along without genius to accompany us.

Next week on the quality of “wonder.”

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Filed under books and learning, critical thinking, education, Human Nature, popular culture, teaching, Uncategorized

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