Woods and Words: Wild Life Between the Cover

By Stuart Mitchner

When we lived in Hoosier Courts, a post-war housing project for married graduate students, Indiana University junior faculty, and veterans on the GI Bill, the garbage cans were in pits with heavy lids because we were on the edge of the wilderness, or so I was told by my parents. Older kids claimed there were mountain lions, bears, and wolves in the woods nearby, where my parents allowed me to explore during the day, in spite of the rumored wildlife. You could walk out your door and within a minute be hiking on the rocky cliffs overlooking the Illinois Central tracks. The pale green clapboard buildings were heated by pot-bellied stoves I got dressed in front of on cold winter mornings. It was at Hoosier Courts, between grades 4 and 6, that I began reading “real books.”

In the dawn of a reading life the pictures are the story: trees with angry limbs and scary faces in the Classic Comic Legend of Sleepy Hollow; Hansel and Gretel wandering through the woods to a house made of sweets; Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest; Reddy Fox and Jerry Muskrat among the many Thornton Burgess books; Donald Duck and his nephews having comic book adventures in the frozen north and the Andes and all around the world.

Pictures were no longer needed by the time our 4th-grade teacher was reading The Little House On the Prairie to us in a two-room country schoolhouse with the wind howling outside. The first adventure books where the words formed the story were Jack London’s White Fang and Call of the Wild; still later came the wild Highlands of Robert Louis Stevenson; then the enchanted forests and islands in Shakespeare and The Winter’s Tale with the memorable stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” And still later Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the great white whale smashing the Pequod to splinters in a book where the real excitement is what’s going on in the author’s exploding mind, same idea in William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” where “the shaggy tremendous shape” moved “with the ruthless and irresistible deliberation of a locomotive” in “the unaxed woods where it left its crooked print.” And where else but in the language-haunted wilderness of Faulkner would “woods” and “words” seem to become one element.

The English wild was another world in books like Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter: His Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers and J.A. Baker’s dense and elaborately articulated The Hill of Summer, both of which made an implicit corrective to the anthropomorphic “wild” of A.A. Milne, Thornton Burgess, and of course Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. At the end, Tarka dies dispatching Deadlock the hunter’s most illustrious warrior hound, his arch enemy, the Javert to his Jean Valjean (an analogy that would probably make Williamson cringe). When Deadlock sees “the small brown head,” he bays “in triumph,” jumps down the bank, bites into the head, lifts the otter high, flings him about, falls into the water with him, Tarka at his throat as they sink together “into the deep water.” The hunters pull the dog’s body out, looking down “in sad wonder” at the dead hound. Tarka’s end has a transcendental purity, beyond the humans, as befits his ultimate escape from the world of companionable pets, hunting dogs, and talking animals. While the hunters watch, they see only “a great bubble” rising out of the depths, then another bubble “shook to the surface and broke,” and then a third bubble in “the sea-going waters, and nothing more.”

Some consider Tarka a children’s book, but I didn’t read it until I was in my thirties. I would have found it too strong and too “written” at ten. Compare Williamson’s ending to Milne’s in The House at Pooh Corner when Christopher Robin tells Pooh he’s moving on (which in their private language means “not doing Nothing anymore”), and the book ends happily ever after “in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest,” where “a little boy and his bear will always be playing.”

The Bear in Manhattan

As I laughed my way through The Bear Went Over the Mountain, I could imagine the author of “The Bear” laughing, too, if Faulkner had lived long enough to read William Kotzwinkle’s tale of the big black bear who found a manuscript in a briefcase, and after making some sartorial adjustments, took Destiny and Desire to a New York publisher and became a best-selling author with literary clout. Call it an adult fairy tale in the fantasy genre or a fable, the novel maintains the suspension of disbelief necessary to get a reader to go along with the notion of a bear meeting a publisher, an agent, an editor, going to a publication party in the Village and bedding a movie agent named Zou Zou who sells the rights to Hollywood.

Best known for his novelization of E.T., Kotzwinkle simply forges ahead with his premise, his attitude being, yes, of course the idea’s preposterous but let’s have some fun with it, let’s take it and run with it and do what comes naturally by finding simple real-life equivalents for the bear’s love of sweets (the shelves of his Manhattan apartment are stocked with a gourmet’s paradise of honey), his enormous strength, his distinct and occasionally catastrophic sensitivity to certain sounds and scents, and his tendency to roll on his back when he’s feeling good after sharing lunch and drinks in a Manhattan restaurant with his agent. Kotzwinkle has no fear of saying or doing the obvious with the situation he’s invented (it’s based on a true story: a bear did make off with a briefcase containing the manuscript of his wife’s novel). The satirical possibilities are obvious but it never feels as though Kotzwinkle is straining to find them; since the situation is ripe for it, he shamelessly exploits all the possibilities, and most readers will be no more disposed to question what he’s up to than the publishing people who accept this Hemingwayesque writer called Hal Jam at “face value,” unable or unwilling to make the perceptual leap that would reveal that the literary sensation they are working for is a bear.

Meanwhile Kotzwinkle is playing fast and loose with politically correct readers ready to wave flags labeled misogynist, homophobe, racist, as when the bear rides too far on the subway and surfaces in Harlem. The ensuing scenes and caricatures have a careless brilliance reminiscent of Terry Southern and R. Crumb, except that the nature of the protagonist lends a primal innocence, at once humorous and lovable, to everything he sees, smells, touches, thinks, and says (his vocabulary limited to the objects of his appetite and the few sometimes hilariously unfortunate phrases he learns from his human friends). Kotzwinkle wants you to laugh at what happens when a force of nature invades the publishing and celebrity culture, but as he says in an interview, “if comedy is hurtful, it’s no longer giving people release. The goal of comedy should be to improve somebody’s disposition, cheer them up and make them feel better. Cruelty is just never good; it always hurts.”

The chapters about the bear in New York alternate with shorter ones concerning the fate of Destiny and Desire’s actual author, Arthur Bramhall, who, despairing at the loss of his manuscript, retires to a cave that turns out to be, wouldn’t you know, the bear’s former habitat. It’s a two-way happy ending as Bramhall thrives in the wild and the bear finds another manuscript. The real-life film rights were purchased by the late Jim Henson and you can see why, but a Muppet version of Hal won’t cut it. You need a force as hugely human as John Goodman made up to resemble a middle-aged Hemingway, and you need a director with Frank Capra’s humanity and Steven Spielberg’s knack for making bedtime stories for grown-ups.

The Real Thing

Imagine William Faulkner circa 1954, hung-over but lucid, pacing under the looming sycamores of Hodge Road in Princeton with Old Ben the giant bear and the Big Woods looming in his mind, and his editor, Saxe Commins, by his side. Later, the author, by then severely sober, sits in the super-civilized comfort of the Commins living room on Alison Road watching squirrels and occasional rabbits come to life in the backyard, beyond which could be seen those same lofty leafy Hodge Road sycamores. He’s preparing a shorter version of “The Bear” for a place in The Big Woods, the book he will dedicate to Commins in the form of an author to editor memo (“We never always saw eye to eye but we were always looking at the same thing”). Still distracted by the sunny yard, he’s working on the passage where “the wilderness coalesced….Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon’s hot dappling…Then it moved. It crossed the glade without haste, walking for an instant into the sun’s full glare and out of it, and stopped again and looked back at him across one shoulder. Then it was gone. It didn’t walk into the woods. It faded, sank back into the wilderness without motion….”

Then, the length of two short (for Faulkner) paragraphs farther on, he brings civilization and education into his woods of words, “the backyard rabbits and squirrels his kindergarten, then the wilderness the old bear ran was his college, and the old male bear itself… was his alma mater.”

All this being readied for the printer where else but in the western district of this wood-wild college town we live in.

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