Review of The Last Shot: A Novella and Eleven Stories by Leon Rooke
If you want to make any progress as a moral being, you have to own up to your biases and grapple with your unexamined assumptions. So in the spirit of self-correction, I’ll freely admit that prior to reading Leon Rooke’s The Last Shot, I was intensely prejudiced against pastiches.
I once thought of pastiche as an inherently second-rate genre, a parasitical form redolent of self-satisfied bookish in-jokes. Pastiches, I believed, should be best left to the nerdy arrested-development types who try to map out the genealogies of Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan (sometimes proving that the great detective and the Jungle Lord are distant cousins). The attempt by various contemporary writers, working under the unhelpful rubric of post-modernism, to ennoble pastiche by making it subversive – I’m thinking here of the appropriation of genre tropes by Robert Coover, Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon – has generally left me cold since the novels they’ve produced lack either the unpretentious, light-hearted thrills of sincere pulp fiction or the emotional intensity of genuine literature. The core problem is that a pastiche is always literature about literature rather than literature about life, hence one step too far removed from the lived experiences that must, in however distorted or imaginative a form, make up the seed of truth around which fiction builds its shell.
But, as Leon Rooke has shown time and again in a career unprecedented in its inventiveness, there is no literary rule that can’t be broken by a writer with enough audacity and moxie. “Gator Wrestling,” the novella that makes up the heart of The Last Shot, is a pastiche of the southern fiction of Clark Blaise, with echoes of Blaise’s own lodestar William Faulkner. Yet there is nothing derivative or second-rate about the story. Readers of Blaise’s superb novel Lunar Attractions or his essential collection Southern Stories will repeatedly experience déjà vu while reading “Gator Wrestling” which features a torpid, musky small-town Florida locale complete with alligators and insects, wayward French-Canadian clans (with names like Thibidault and Coombs) who have made their way south, and a furniture store that goes defunct leaving family disaster in its wake. One character uses the phrase “a North American education” (title of a key Blaise story), another character is shamelessly named “little Blaise” and even a “Struthers” shows up (a tip of the hat to critic J. R. Struthers, who edited the volume Short Story, which was dedicated to Clark Blaise, where Rooke’s story first appeared).
All of this might make “Gator Wrestling” sound hopelessly coy and self-referential, like a televised “celebrity roast” where the stars rib each other for flubs they made decades ago on the set of a long forgotten B movie while the audience gawps in puzzlement. Yet “Gator Wrestling” isn’t just an expert joshing of a Blaise story but rather something much deeper than that, perhaps comparable to the musical genre of “the cover.” Think of Joan Baez doing a cover of a Bob Dylan song, where she sings the same lyrics but also reveals new shades of meaning and comments on Dylan’s influence on folk music. Or imagine Miles Davis doing a cover of a Duke Ellington number while also paying tribute to their common debt to Scott Joplin and you’ll get an idea of what Rooke achieves by both covering a Clark Blaise story and also laying a wreath at the tomb of their common father, Faulkner.
Rooke can get away with doing a Blaise cover because the two men share a similar life-trajectory as reverse carpetbaggers, Southerners who have headed (or returned) north. Rooke was born in North Carolina, and Blaise spent his crucial formative years in Florida. Both men are haunted by the South in the same way a defrocked clergyman will remain haunted by Christ. “Gator Wrestling” recreates the country of Blaise’s youth to chronicle the shift from the Old South to the new. As so often in Rooke’s fiction, generational conflict lies at the heart of the drama, in this particular tale the tension between the racism of the traditional south and the rise of a younger generation formed in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.
The characters in “Gator Wrestling” aren’t just crackers and hicks, they are self-conscious crackers and hicks, whose very dialect is knowingly exaggerated. As the narrator observes of two girls, “No one could put [them] in the shade when it came to talking cracker talk.” So when a character refers to a car as “a awe-tee-mo-beel” we’re to think not just of Faulkner but also the long tradition of comic hillbillies such as Al Capp’s L’il Abner. The Old South is no longer a region but rather a giant open air theme park, and even the reactionary politics of the area has an aspect of play-acting. Ultimately “Gator Wrestling” is an elegy, albeit a hilarious one: the south of Blaise and Faulkner, for better or worse, is long gone, and the story offers up a high-spirited obituary.
Blaise and Faulkner are only two of the many writers alluded to, celebrated or even gently tweaked in The Last Shot. The first shot in The Last Shot makes reference to almost all the major modern short story writers from O. Henry to Raymond Carver. J.D. Salinger, no less, shows up in another tale, although he’s only a teeny-bit more forthcoming in Rooke’s rendition than he was in real life. The process of writing also gets foregrounded in the book, as witness titles like “All True Stories have Loose Ends” and “How to Write a Successful Short Story” (the latter allluding to a Ring Lardner collection with a title that has an extra edge of irony when we realize there is no one alive who can offer better advice on this topic than Rooke).
I’ve mentioned my prejudice against “literature about literature” and my distrust of post-modernism. Well, just as some of Rooke’s southerners overcome their racism and indeed transcend the condition of whiteness, Rooke has conquered my literary bigotry. With an author as wide-reading as Rooke, and as skilful as he is in doing riffs in the style of other writers, literature is part of life and a fit subject for stories.
With all its literary allusiveness, The Last Shot almost seems designed to provoke reflections on Rooke’s own status in the pantheon of modern fiction. At this late date in his career, more than forty years after the publication of his first story collection, appraising Rooke’s oeuvre seems both daunting and unnecessary. He belongs in the small, select company of Canadian masters, a peer of Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, and Clark Blaise. Like them, everything he writes is, almost by definition, worth reading and re-reading.
Tellingly, reviewers faced with the task of surveying the Rooke phenomenon often resort to the same tactics used by hapless tour guides at Niagara Falls, statistics. Rooke has given us more than 300 stories, many but not all of which can be found in his 18 collections, as well as 7 novels, plus sundry plays and poems.
Such quantitative measures tell us nothing about quality. More impressive is the fact that Rooke’s prodigious prolificness is achieved without the vices of prolixity and repetitiveness. Although he’s given over to swooping flights of rhetoric, Rooke’s verbal virtuosity always serves a purpose. There is scarcely an unnecessary word in The Last Shot. The stylistic variety on display is remarkable: aside from his impressive resurrection of Flannery O’Connor’s flint-eyed portrayal of shiftless poor whites (in “The Last Shot” and “A Good Radio Voice”) we also get a sentimental story about angels told by a narrator who is as bluff and breezy, as clubby and cool, as Anthony Trollope unfolding a tale about the doings of a small town vicarage.
What holds the collection together is a concern for family life. In “Gator Wrestling” a family saga is summed up in a crisp sentence: “Junior had been wanting to leave town since he was a boy, the father bound and determined to keep Junior under his thumb and properly beholden, as a child should be.” Here is Rooke’s recurring concern, which is not just the way the old weigh down the young but also the way the young trap the old. Family life in Rooke’s universe is like a spider web, both a home and a sticky constraint. And if they do escape from home, Rooke’s people perversely desire to return there. This desire for home even effects Dark, the personification of death who is the hero of the last story in the collection.
The great cliché about Rooke is that he’s primarily an oral writer, one who flourishes best when he’s on stage. Annie Michaels has called Rooke “a preacher” while Kent Thompson says he’s a “performance artist,” a description echoed by John Metcalf. Like most clichés, Rooke-as-performer is true enough, but it allows readers to ignore the fact that he’s as much an eye-writer as a tongue-writer. To simplify, tongue-writers are the great rhetoricians and monologuists of literature – Joyce, Faulkner, Philip Roth – who hold our attention with a torrential outpouring of words. Eye-writers are the cooler, more observant sorts who like to linger on the surface of things: Nabokov, John Updike, Nicholson Baker.
Rooke’s impossible-to-ignore skills as a tongue-writer have prevented readers and critics from noticing how visually attentive he is. In “Gator Wrestling” a bicycle is limned with these words: “a near-spokeless, wired-together bike . . . seatless but for a protruding metal spike, the bent pedals dragging the dust, the handlebar misaligned, as though an axe heel had been taken to it.” This remarkable bike is a thing of beauty not only in and of itself, it’s a perfect emblem of an entire way of life and region. That region, the American South, gave birth to Leon Rooke, and remains the ground of his being, the wellspring of his remarkable literary career. Just as Dark returns to his mother, Rooke has taken one last trip home, a journey that enriches us all.