Dylan and Gentrification in Debut Fiction

Ever felt like mothering a rock star, whispering sweet guiding words? In D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back, there is a very real confusion on display, confusion as oracular truth, truth as transparent vulnerability, vulnerability as the willingness to stand up before a microphone and be heard, heard while hitting every damn note.

The Bob Dylan of Don’t Look Back, the Dylan only those who know him can know, is one whose adventures are evocative as much for what we don’t see as for what we do (what, The Beatles are dropping by to say hello?); who despite being the focus of attention in every room he enters (take that, Donovan) still somehow appears in need of a friend, the well-meaning reflection of a true compass.

One of the documentary’s most memorable scenes, how barely the dialogue holds by a thread, is that between Dylan and a student interviewer who confesses right off to not really being much of an interviewer before proposing that maybe he and Dylan could be friends; and the thing is, beyond the evident glee Dylan derives in teasing him, the star still takes pains to involve himself in their conversation. When the temper of the onlooking pianist wears thin—he suggests throwing the kid out of the room—Dylan issues a reprieve.

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Whose words Dylan seeks out to share in secret, anyone can wonder: more specifically, what books does he read?

Helen Phillips would like to know. Her debut collection of flash fiction, And Yet They Were Happy, nakedly addresses itself to the man who is the figment who is the man: “I want this to be published so Bob Dylan might read it before he dies. These sentences are the closest I can get to rock ’n roll.” Phillips says she loves him and that she’s thinking of him, though somehow in the pages of a book it’s an avowal whose meaning is less than stable, a quality Dylan might recognize, those less than stable meanings.

As do the lyrics to many of Dylan’s songs, Phillips’ stories have a penchant for the fabular, the king and the queen and the howling borderline, Noah of the Ark and Kerouac of the Beats, change a-comin’ down, ready or not: “My mother, during any conversation about a sad or complicated situation, sighs and says, ‘Well, that’s just the nature of the beast.’”

“However, I should like to know more about this beast!” she adds.

Each of her flash fiction pieces is one of a set: there are “floods”; there are “fights”; there are “weddings” and there are “envies”; there are “regimes” and “apocalypses.” The overall effect is of a sketchpad, varied approaches to abstract subjects, the stuff of obsession. In each piece, Phillips adheres to what feels like an almost mathematical format: two pages of approximately four hundred words, something like the brevity and wit of Lydia Davis, with a sensibility by turns droll and dark as that of Steven Millhauser, and colored by the whimsy of Miranda July, belief at belief’s fraying ends.

If Dylan stands in some respect as a resilient symbol of cultural gentrification, the Hibbing boy who moved into the Southern Black blues rock tradition (“Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine”)—you won’t find Blood on the Tracks by listening to recordings of Robert Johnson and Odetta, but you won’t fathom it without them, either—his name makes an appropriate icon for Phillips’ collection, appropriated as the name is. After all, it’s not for you or me or anybody to come between a listener and his or her feelings for Bob Dylan, and Phillips’ feelings are distinctly, and humorously, and even rapturously, voiced. To the degree that they become something more than feelings, this circus of trapezing associations, her Dalloway-inflected fictions offer a template for a life of pleasure lived in full view of melting ice-caps: The floodwaters are rising, yet we shall have a party.” King for king, queen for queens.

More than magical realism, Phillips’s collection explores what magical realism grows out of, the need for fantasy among her Adams and her Eves. “You love to make-believe?” Phillips’ every story seems to ask, with youth’s ebullient enthusiasm, “Me too! Me too!”

Behind almost every dream, no matter how fantastical or weightless (“Charlie Chaplin loves me because I throw bananas to the poor, and because I roller-skate backwards”), are traces of a couple living in a neighborhood much like many in Brooklyn. To her distant parents, one incarnation of the book’s multiple yet resolutely Helen-like narrators tells tall tales of the city she occupies, in knowing satire: “Artists live hidden among the blackberry bushes in wooden shacks with geraniums planted in the kitchen floor and hand-sewn quilts for doors.”

Meanwhile, lest her characters and concerns seem the creation of shallow caprice in the face of overwhelming despair, femininity in Phillips has plenty of sand to spare. Concludes her tale of the exploding infant, a rallying cry for the world of tomorrow: “A hot little baby at the nipple! Our muscles full of invisible health! The shiny floors reflecting the full moon! Our hearts shooting upwards! No touch of doubt in us anymore!”

***

Bob Dylan does not appear in Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints, but you don’t get from blues rock to punk without him; Dylan is called an anarchist by London at the end of Don’t Look Back, and, somewhere off-camera, The Clash tosses its rattle against the wall, wailing from the crib. As well as punk, Henderson’s debut novel addresses gentrification in Alphabet City, the narrative progression culminating in the infamous Tompkins Square Park riot of 1988.

Jude Keffy-Horne, the 16-year-old adopted son of divorced parents, lives in Lintonburg, Vermont at the novel’s open, Henderson’s version of Burlington. He is a punk not only in musical taste, but sensibility, too: stealing where he can, chasing cheap highs with inseparable companion Teddy, flash-imagining the inappropriate and seeing shades of sex everywhere, in that bad pun way so near and dear to adolescent humor. But around the bend, in the form of an overdose, tragedy lurks.

Which leaves Jude to grasp for a new identity, to correct the course of his wayward ship by—and here is where the proud delinquency at the heart of Henderson’s story takes off, the story’s sympathies squared with the likes of college drop-out Dylan in the glare of that book-smart British grad student’s attentions—ditching high school once and for all, and moving to New York City, where father, Les, and Teddy’s older half-brother, Johnny, reside. Les deals designer marijuana (he is probably a nephew of voracious record producer Lou from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad) and Johnny, a fixture at CBGBs, leads a popular straight edge band, a readymade dialectic.

Central to Jude’s world is a budding relationship to Eliza, a troubled sort of preppy, whose mother Les happens to be seeing. Is she a friend? A step-sibling? A romantic interest? These questions are complicated by one difficult fact: Eliza is carrying Teddy’s baby.

Henderson’s plot throws a wide net, akin in intent to a novel like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Plenty happens between the covers of Ten Thousand Saints. No matter how thorny the issues her characters face (they face a lot of issues), they can only be themselves, just people and not poster-children. Her compromised world is one where the heroes don’t buckle to compromise. All it takes is a little of that punk attitude.

The achievement here lies in the variety, and strength, of the characterizations, the subtle way, in a novel that holds more than its fair share of drama, that the narrative voice shifts depending on who is viewing whom, the generational divide between parents and children.

Impossible to mistake the voice of Harriet, Jude’s mother, for anyone else: “What kind of teenage boys sang songs about purity? They were awfully angry, these songs. The classics of her own youth, about getting stoned and getting laid, were strummed on the guitar, they were hummed in the shower, there were harmonicas.” Or Eliza: “You didn’t call a boy beautiful, not a boy who was your husband’s best friend, not a boy who didn’t like girls and who went around picking fights and who you really did think was beautiful.” Or Ravi, the father the departed Teddy never knew: “Fifteen years later, he had not found his son, but he had made a decent living furnishing divorces to disgraced American wives.”

The language of Ten Thousand Saints is visceral, the metaphors a genre unto themselves, all bony knees and scabbed elbows. Henderson excels at portraying the impassioned rush to judgment, the way in which her youngest characters hurl accusations at one another and, then, just as quickly, turn the page. As narrator, Henderson allies herself with the notion that the only absolute truth is that everyone has his or her own, a principle as American as the peripatetic rock star or apple pie.

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Jeff Price is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in The Millions, The Rumpus and elsewhere. Find him here. ...read more

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