Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 125 in December, 2010.
The Ass’s Tale
By John Farris
Review by Kevin Riordan
" I thought I was writing realism. It never occurred to me that I was writing absurdity. Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one cannot tell the difference."
John Farris’ The Ass’s Tale, the latest Unbearable Book, stands like a bookend to civilization when paired with its antecedent, The Golden Ass, the only complete surviving Latin novel, by the 2nd century Berber writer Apuleius. What strikes me about the earlier book is not so much its celebrated eroticism (manfully, doggedly held up by Farris, and in the shadows of every generation between) but the pervasive quality of magic, the thinness of the veil between the worlds of flesh and spirit. In Farris’ world magic arrives more like a runaway meat truck than an answer to prayers or incantations. His protagonist, Lucius, blames Elvis for making him nothin’ but a hound dog, when all he wants is to swing and bop to the jazz greats before they die or monkeys take over their backs. As he says,
“What was the key to all this? It wasn’t F sharp… in order to find it I was going to have to B sharp and … there was none, at least not in the mode I was in. I was going to have to invent the goddamn thing. My ass and I would have to explore all the intervals.”
According to Robert Graves, who knew more about the old religion and the Roman world than anyone, the ‘golden’ in the original title refers the quality of an often-told tale, a chestnut. Well Lucius’ ass is black, whatever else you can say about it, and he says it all. Nothing, from the moment you get your ass in gear until you take your dead ass home, will ever sound the same. The fundamentally bizarre thing about the hound dog narrator, who can sing and sign but not speak, is that his ass is a character unto itself, can only sometimes be substituted for the word ‘self.’ He’s such an instance of double consciousness, when he hauls ass, he has to take two trips.
It has become commonplace to refer to someone disappearing ‘up their own ass,’ but that may be one place to locate our Lucius, who wanders through the episodes of this inside-out book in constant anxiety over losing his trumpet playing ass; or perhaps it is New York as ‘Pleasure Isle,’ threatening to turn every Pinocchio into a donkey for misbehaving. Pleasure there is, especially in the excursions into the jazz world. The passages about music have a clarity that wriggles away the rest of the time. His adventures with inmates, party girls, the man, Uncle Sam, a blind vet he ‘sees’ for, and the shape-shifting creatures called Lucans (usually snakes, but recalling the weasels and stoats of Wind in the Willows) propel the hero through a docket of often humorous trials.
His leapfrogging sentences put the ‘meta’ in metaphor, leaving hardly a phrase unexamined for multiple meanings. He and his ass share the stage with a menagerie of metaphorically metamorphosed animalia, and humans are just another hapless order of mammal. Along with his personhood, at some point he also sheds his visibility, prompting a wino to toast ‘to de marvelous,’ and we veer into the picaresque realm of a Thorne Smith farce or a Rarebit dream.
In A Mixture of Frailties, Robertson Davies’ sensitively flawed artist Giles Revelstoke squanders other people’s money while pouring his soul into an Operatic version of The Golden Ass that bombs, but Davies himself wrote such a libretto in his final years; it is a windmill of our culture awaiting all Quixotic comers.
This is not to imply that Farris doesn’t also summon up the scope of Ishmael Reed’s NeoHoodooism, and if I have dropped one too many names, it’s just to gear you up for the blizzard of name checking you are venturing into.
Finally I offer a bit of advice from Himes’ deathless Gravedigger Jones: Don’t lose your head; your ass goes with it.