Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Me, Dad, and Thorne Smith

Today would have been my father's birthday.

Maybe that's why I decided to read Thorne Smith's The Stray Lamb this past week. Dad loved Thorne Smith and his quirky turns of phrase, his inventive vocabulary, his outrageous story lines. In his chair in the living room, Dad would sit and smoke L & M cigarettes (though he later switched to Marlboro Lights after bumming a few of mine) with an ugly brown melamine coffee cup beside him -- with beer in it, reading The Stray Lamb or Turnabout, cackling to himself now and then over a particularly delicious turn of phrase.

He wouldn't let me read Thorne Smith until I was fourteen, due to the sexual nature of the content: ummm, infidelity and underpants were mentioned. (There were no graphic sexual depictions in Smith's work; but back then, all sexuality was taken seriously.) Even when I was fourteen, we made a deal: I could read his Thorne Smith books if I kept the dictionary beside me and looked up any word whose definition I didn't already know. I learned "misanthropic" and "sanguinary," "vicarious," "sardonically" and "jocund." And many more. By the time I was done snickering over The Stray Lamb, I was primed for Turnabout, in which a husband and wife get on an Egyptian god's nerves and are switched into each other's body. Such venom in simple language, such commentary on life.

T. Lawrence Lamb argues with an old seagull who quarrels with everything Lamb says, until finally Lamb bursts out, "You're an insufferable old fool and you don't know you're alive." In Turnabout, Tim Willows says to his complaintive wife, "I wish to several different sets of gods I could change places with you for a while ... I'd sit down and write myself a book. It might be a rotten book, but at least I'd have the satisfaction of finding it out." I've remembered those two quotes almost every day of my life since I read them; I've tried to live my life so that no one would ever say such to me.

Dad left me with quite a legacy in those books. They were formative even when I had no clue that I would become a writer, and I'm grateful for the unorthodox world-view they portrayed. Yet it's only in middle age that I look at the main characters of Thorne Smith's books and see that he wrote about men who were trapped and dragged down by life, whose only salvation was magical in nature, no remedy to be found in the real world.

I'm sorry I didn't see that sooner, but there was nothing I could have done for him, not really. I loved him, and he knew I loved him; we shared an understanding and accepted what we had, and what we couldn't have, and still knew we were alive, and had the satisfaction of knowing we were doing what we could to stretch our senses out as far as they could go.

While many of my friends have given up on an afterlife, I hold onto a hope that someday I'll get to see him again, and ask him what he thought of my books, and I will promptly backhand my fingers across his arm and tell him to dream up a spectral typewriter, sit his spectral ass down, and write the book he always had a sneaking desire to write.


Cheryl said...

Dontcha hate those, "How could I have missed that" moments? Your dad sounds like a great guy - and another Gemini, so I know I would have like him.

Kathy said...

Ah, Thorne Smith going on my list of "must reads." Enjoy those memories of your dad and keep looking forward to those future conversations.

Kathy said...
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