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Jim Dandy to the Rescue

ISSUE:  Autumn 1995
Jim Dandy. By Irvin Faust. Carroll & Graf. $21.00.

La Vern Baker’s 1956 hit recording of the Lincoln Chase song “Jim Dandy” sketches the eponymous hero’s nature in four verses. He is a lady’s man, “the kind of guy/ Never liked to see a little girl cry”; a sharp dresser who “didn’t need no suit—/ He was hip and ready to boot”; and above all a ubiquitous rescuer, who saves “a lady on a runaway horse” from a 30, 000 foot drop from a mountaintop, then from a submarine saves a “mermaid queen” who was “hangin’ from a fishin’ line.”

The chorus urges the tag-line, “Jim Dandy to the rescue,” three times and then closes with the supportive cheer, “Go Jim Dandy, go Jim Dandy.” This whole lyric, anomalous for its time among the typical rhythm-and-blues sentiments of Joe Turner, Ivory Joe Turner, and Clyde McPhatter (e. g., “Since I met you, baby, my whole life has changed”), nevertheless encapsulates a traditional motif going back at least as far as the 1843 blackface minstrel song, “Jim Dandy of Caroline.”

Eventually the name became an adjective meaning “unusually fine, splendid, admirable” (The Dictionary of American Slang cites a 1952 Anacin commercial) and incidentally was given to the horse that gave Gallant Fox his only loss in 1930. (That was the year Gallant Fox won the Triple Crown, was the leading money winner, and was arguably the country’s best-loved athlete. He went into the Travers at Saratoga as odds-on favorite, engaged in a speed duel in the mud with the second choice, and gave way in the stretch to Jim Dandy, a 100—1 shot. A Grade II stakes at Saratoga is named for Jim Dandy; ironically, it is often used as a prep for the Travers.) But Chase’s lyric looks back to the minstrel show character, a folk figure known for his wit, his fine attire (dandy = fop), his good looks, his universal appeal for women, and the ease of his superheroic rescues. As hero of Irvin Faust’s new novel, he is once again all of these. It is my hope that it (he) will serve now to rescue the reputation of an underrated, unjustly neglected writer.

Faust’s previous eight books of fiction consist of six novels bracketed by two collections of short stories. The first, Roar Lion Roar (1964), has ten prodigiously versatile stories. Several show how popular culture touches lives in ordinary and extraordinary ways, while most refer to what evolves as a dominant theme in Faust’s work—the problematic nature of “self” in a complex world. The nine stories that comprise The Year of the Hot Jock (1985) demonstrate a storyteller’s mastery of his narrative art. Each is a uniquely faceted gem; taken together they are a dazzling display of Faust’s characteristic materials and methods: elements of sports, gambling, popular culture, historical figures and events, issues of race and ethnicism; the spare, pointed, elliptical style; and an ear sensitive to the revealing nuances of dialogue that catches the manifold variety of New York voices and tones better perhaps than anyone but Tom Wolfe in his much-maligned Bonfire of the Vanities.>

These are also the strengths that characterize the novels. The Steagle (1966) is neither apprentice work nor autobiographical bildungsroman but a kind of portrait of a young man experiencing a psychotic episode complicated by alcoholic binging. Condensed, densely allusive, highly charged with political and social commentary, it is also enriched by a texture woven of popular culture, especially sports and popular music. In technical as well as thematic terms, The Steagle presages much of Faust’s subsequent work, chiefly in the way that the demands of his elliptical style are frequently rewarded by the gift of laughter; Faust is a serious writer but a very funny one.

A remarkable period of six years saw the appearance of Faust’s next four novels. The File on Stanley Patton Buchta (1970) follows a New York City police officer into alienated extremist groups as demonstrations and confrontations build toward apocalyptic riots. He encounters the black nationalist Zulus and the Puerto Rican-dominated Ponce (Reform) Democratic Club and serves as a member (undercover) of the radical left wing B. U. C. and the radical right wing Alamos.

Willy Remembers (1971) is a monologue, the freewheeling associations and reminiscences of a Spanish-American War vet telling his own story and his country’s in non-linear geriatric chronology. Ninety-three years of history—international, domestic, and personal—are jumbled in the exuberant clutter of Willy’s mind, with its lightning shifts and allusions to song lyrics, movies, radio, comic strips, vaudeville, Broadway, sports (especially boxing and track and field), advertising slogans, and snippets of headline news. Willy’s story is tragic but his confusions, anachronisms, malapropisms, and tireless one-liners are insistently comic. Above all, his voice is an unerring, authentic expression of a century’s agglomeration of prejudices in a paradoxically patriotic anthem.

Foreign Devils (1973) is Faust’s comic venture into metafiction, telling of a writer’s invention of a shamelessly melodramatic potboiler romance set during the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1903. It is nevertheless reflective of the writer’s present-day situation. The book features inner dialogues between the writer and his otherself-conscience-editor-censor-superego. They address one another as Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian as they debate the writer’s own situation at least as much as the work in progress.

A Star in the Family (1975) chronicles the rise and fall of a prominent comedian who is the subject of a biography-in-progress. The book has an intricate mosaic-like structure of 105 segments, just over half of which are “interviews” with 36 different people who knew him intimately or casually along his way from class clown and platoon wit to Borscht Belt and Broadway and TV and Hollywood to blacklist and provincial club date and barroom routine-on-demand. Other segments have autobiographical narration including interior monologue, preserved documents and correspondence, and brief exchanges between biographer and subject reminiscent of the inner dialogues in Foreign Devils.> The thematic material is familiar: the pop-culture allusiveness, commentary on political history and social-sexual mores, the vet with problems of alcoholism and “readjustment” (now institutionalized as post-traumatic stress disorder), the familial conflicts, and the anomalous mixture of liberalism, patriotism, and prejudice.

History impinges on these fictions in various ways. The Steagle is enacted against the riveting events of the Cuban missile crisis; the writer in Foreign Devils breaks through his block when inspired by Nixon’s visit to China; the comedian of Star is overwhelmed at Kennedy’s assassination; and Willy loses a brother and a son in two World Wars. This impingement is appropriate to the nature of the protagonists as veterans of foreign wars, from San Juan Hill to Vietnam, but in most cases World War II. In Faust’s hands, however, the panoramic sweep of history is counterpointed by such virtuoso set-pieces as a comedian’s bar mitzvah speech and a three-page verbal recapitulation of the movie Zulu (including commercial breaks in the televised presentation).

Newsreel (1980) serves as a kind of climactic compendium of Faust’s work up to that time. It announces itself in its opening lines as a metafictional, self-reflexive kunstlerroman: “I have to get this right. I’ve started it three times. Here’s the fourth. . . .” The self-conscious attention to the writer’s writing, however, for the most part recedes into the background as the narrator tells his story.

The book’s title is a direct allusion to U. S. A.> in which Dos Passos used a technique of that name as part of a design to integrate political/ historical sweep with private fictional lives. I take it, however, as hommage: no comparison is called for. Faust is writing in the contemporary idiom of DeLillo, Doctorow, Coover, and Pynchon, in which the historical, the legendary, and the notorious impinge upon imaginary, “ordinary” humanity. Faust’s particular theme has become the problem of identity, a political/philosophical as well as psychological matter, and here Newsreel looks forward to Jim Dandy.

The narrator is a World War II vet, whose post-traumatic stress disorder or psychotic episode revolves around an obsession with Eisenhower. It was under Ike’s command that he evolved from Manny Finestone, neurotically nebbish adolescent New York City schoolboy, into Captain Speed Finestone, battlefield commission and all. In the course of the story he enters into a folie a deux with another vet (protecting Ike, they have discovered a plot against him involving a disguised Hitler); into two marriages and the pursuit of a third; into professions in the theater, journalism, freelance genre writing, teaching, and the kind of long-distance running that is prophetic of Forrest Gump, until finally he is ready to begin a serious work of fiction. Finding his own voice as a writer is a metaphor for resolving his identity issues, integrating the Manny and Speed pieces, the components of his father and brother, the parts of him drawn into his various relationships with women, the projections onto ego-ideal figures like Symphony Sid and Roger Maris and Jim Ryun.

But all those issues somehow turn on his schizophrenogenic politics, the American dilemma in which patriotism and philosophical ideals are in direct opposition. His liberal attitudes are in constant conflict with his idolization of Ike: every presidential election virtually guarantees an emotional crisis, so that he may work vigorously all fall, for example, on Adlai Stevenson’s campaign and yet on the first Tuesday in November cannot bring himself to vote against Eisenhower. When the integrated self, able to tolerate Kip Keino’s defeat of Ryun in the 1968 Olympics at Mexico City, finally votes for Hubert Humphrey, he is then able to start his novel.

The Faust formula, with its rich pop-cultural texture, the comic interlace among serious thematic material, the occasional bravura setpiece, and the challenging elliptical style, is at its mature best here. That Newsreel has largely been ignored seems to me a clear reflection of a narrowed critical focus in a fragmented cultural climate, rather than an accurate measure of its worth.

Now comes Jim Dandy, a novel that reworks many of Faust’s familiar themes, attitudes, and techniques into something quite new, distinct, and distinctive. The challenge of an elliptical style is here compounded by a structure that ranges far behind and beyond the immediate chronological focus of 1935—36. Of its 38 segments, five are “Interludes” set in italics—comical, fanciful, even farfetched experimentations in point of view but at the same time consistently presented as if they were pieces of minstrel show shtick. A Prologue sets the historical minstrel show background, involving the hero as a child performer (who also listens to tales of his family’s African origins and enslavement), and an Epilogue closes the frame with the image of Hollis Cleveland cakewalking up Fifth Avenue to celebrate Joe Louis’s destruction of Max Schmeling.

The Protean nature of the storyteller, able to shift into the shape of whatever voice, style, or persona can weave episode into narrative, mirrors the condition of the performer-hero, who can assume whatever identity others project onto him. In the course of the novel, Cleveland is assumed in turn to be the model for the Scarlet Creeper character in Carl Van Vechten’s Harlem novel, Nigger Heaven, the actor who played Noah in Green Pastures, an emissary of Eleanor Roosevelt, Prince Galifa—the son of Ras Gugsa of Gondar, Francois le Bébé—legendary Senegalese casanova, the Black Devil—legendary hero of African anti-colonialism, Christopher da Gama—hero of an anti-Italian-tank battle, Menelik—late Ethiopian emperor, Mirambo—black slaver of the Congo, and “Crazy Guy”—African folk hero who will “come to rescue” all in need. He also enacts an autobiography of Joe Louis, climaxed by his destruction of Primo Camera, which his Ethiopian audience understands as the tale of Menelik’s victory over the Italians at Adowa (assumed identity within assumed identity within assumed identity).

Cleveland himself assumes the name James Dandy for the forged papers that allow his escape from New York—to London, Paris, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, main stops on Faust’s grand tour of 1935 world affairs. (It is not his first Abyssinian venture—the uncollected short story “Enemy Propaganda” in Confrontation [1992] amusingly combines an interest in psychotherapy with living memories of Mussolini’s war against Haile Selassie.)

The issue of personal identity merges with dilemmas of ethnic, political, national, and racial affiliation. Cleveland, reminded of his hereditary alliance with the Pygmies of the Huri forest, is urged by his African American aunt to heed Marcus Garvey’s plea for every blackman to join the Ethiopian struggle. Then, as Jim Dandy he agrees to join Mussolini’s Graziano (rival of Badoglio) faction in Ethiopia, only to be coopted, temporarily, into the outmanned, valiant, bedraggled troops of Ras Tafari (Selassie). In Liberia, he switches sides from the transplanted African American (thus, second-hand colonialist) establishment to the native Cru rebels. When he returns from Africa to Harlem, he switches allegiance from his old Jewish boss, Sol Winograd, an associate of the Sicilian mob to an Irish mob with better police connections.

For a substantial central portion of the book, the protagonist role is taken over by Max Josephson, a black World War I ace, whose exploits and goals in Africa are arrantly self-aggrandizing and apolitical. Max dominates the stage (and incidentally takes care of Cleveland, because it serves his own ends) while the latter appears to have been rendered lethargic, virtually catatonic, from post-traumatic stress. But the trauma in this case is less wartime combat than the effects of a relationship with an Ethiopian woman whose behavior is a powerful, painful, shocking reminder of the experience of enslavement in his own heritage.

In these narrative ways, the historical setting is made relevant to contemporary themes. Organized crime is seen as a civilized bulwark against anarchy, just as Mussolini’s fascism got the trains to run on time: the price of order is loss of freedom. The traditional American alliance for civil rights among blacks and Jews is dramatized in the figure of Scott Winograd, a Jewish Yalie who devotes his life to anti-colonialism in Africa. But the tearing apart of that alliance is presaged as Cleveland and Sol turn against one another in murderous enmity. Meanwhile, we are reminded that the enslavement of black Africans was committed by other black Africans and Arabs (primarily based in Zanzibar) in a chain extending to the white slavers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Yet Faust’s readers are never buried under ponderous thematic material. We are entertained by sketches, impressions, and impersonations of such historical figures as Eleanora Duse, Josephine Baker, Lucky Luciano, Walter Winchell, and of course Haile Selassie and Joe Louis. Even more, we are enthralled by finely etched portraits of many colorful characters imagined along Dandy’s way such as an anti-Semitic Briton fixated on the letter G and an Abyssinian urchin infected with vulgarities of American slang. Faust’s flights of fancy here extend to a dialogue between a colobus monkey and a royal cobra and to literally bird’s-eye and airplane-aerial points of view. Arguably, Jim Dandy may be ranked with Faust’s best work, which places him and it in the first rank of contemporary American fiction. A writer whose entertaining storytelling encompasses such a profound grasp of prejudice, persona, patois, politics, and pathology cannot long remain unappreciated.


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