LISTEN to Chris Erickson read the opening of Henrytown:
We could, in place of an epilogue for Chris Erickson’s novella Henrytown, simply reproduce Sherwood Anderson’s “Book of Grotesques,” his prologue from Winesburg, Ohio. Certainly this would be a post-historical gesture, one that suggests that our literary forbears have already written all of the prologues, epilogues, commentaries, and stories that matter. And, yes, at first blush, Mr. Erickson is clearly indebted to his literary father: even their names, Erickson and Anderson, imply fathers and sons; even the cemetery in Henrytown is called “Sherwood.” This post-historical gesture would be fitting, too, in another sense. With Henrytown, Mr. Erickson has self-consciously written his own book of grotesques, and the similarities between the two short works are telling—they are both, on the surface, a collection of stories or vignettes about thwarted American provincials. But we might also consider, at second blush, that we are dangerously mistaken. For Mr. Erickson does not, as a certain Freudian strain of American deconstructionism would have it, seek to murder his father or unconsciously reproduce his father’s will. With his real-time updates of bizarre lives in a rural Erehwon, Mr. Erickson works at something far more radical: Henrytown wants to estrange the very infinitive to father, to make fatherhood as weird as possible. Or at least it wishes to take us back to an idea of fathering so old (and prelapsarian) we can scarcely remember it. In any case, Henrytown is shot through with a kind of literary mantra: Fathers are dead! Long live Fathers!
“I’m a sympathetic man toward fathers,” confesses the narrator of Henrytown in a routine moment of craziness. Who is this nameless narrator, with his pseudo-scientific diction and generous ideas about dildos? I submit, following the evidence, that he is a man (like the Barthelme of The Dead Father) who is obsessed with fathers. Exhibit A. The narrator rhapsodizes about the partus:
I say, “Yeah, go to his partus. Go to that room, that area. Whatever I’m going
through, go there. I must lay it down in Hwang’s birth room, Hwang’s partus
area. I must put in the hours. If there is another way, tell me…”
What is the partus? Taken from the Latin—Partus sequitur ventrem—the phrase means, literally, “that which is brought forth follows the womb.” Through the cracked lens of American history, we can see that the partus was used to determine the citizenship of mixed-raced descendants, especially those of slaveholding men. In the colonial period, extending deep into the antebellum years, the so-called legitimate offspring of whites were taken for granted as Children of the Crown, whereas the bastard children of non-white women were absolved of such pleasantries. But what has the partus to do with Henrytown? We might say that, unlike the Fathers of America’s history, the narrator of Henrytown is profoundly concerned with the subjecthood of its citizens.
What I mean to say is that the crazed lumpens who populate Henrytown might well be the embodiment of the narrator’s imagination. Even the name Henrytown suggests a colony founded by some guy named Henry. Yet Hwang, Bad Willie, John Dinger, Paco, and Marty-Neil—just a few of the citizens of Henrytown—aren’t exactly hatchlings born from the narrator’s mind. Quite the opposite: they are real presences in the narrator’s mind. They are also emanations of a peculiar type of American provincial, one that enlightened cosmopolitans love to minstrelize on reality television. The characters of Henrytown, then, like the novel itself, are hybrids of fact and fiction. (And many of these characters, like Gloria-Half-of-Something, seem to be actual hybrids.) They work to dispel tired notions of the American underclass merely by acting as free agents.
What they choose to do with their freedom is another matter entirely. Unlike Winesburg, Ohio’s grotesques, who are stifled by the entropy of small town life, the citizens of Henrytown acknowledge no obstacles to their vitality; never do the travails of usury or property or unemployment hinder their goat-stomp through life. Bad Willie straps a knife to his stump, points it at Hwang, screams, and the next day they have sex in a convenient store. The mayor’s wife gives birth to an alarming number of children. John Dinger stamps out a troll infestation in a nearby town. Henrytown is constructed, like any small town, from the lively imagination of its yarn-spinner. And the vignettes that form the novel take on the color of American tall- or twice-told tales. John Dinger, the troll killer, is only a skip away from the bear-wrestling Davy Crockett, who, we might remember, once swallowed a lightning bolt to cure his broken heart.
This isn’t to suggest that Henrytown is energized by a vortex—as the narrator might put it—or untrammeled vigor. Quite the contrary, the novel is built on systems. Hair systems. Body training systems. The all-the-waitress-is-willing-to-bring-you shrimp system. Describing his own offensive system, the legendary Coach Lord Futo pleads with his players:
Believe me. At least look me in my face, please. That’s not the system. The
system is we bring the basketball up, the five goes down under the basket
and kind of moves around; the one, two, three, and four work the ball on the
perimeter—very important part of the system, you see, working the ball on
the perimeter—then eventually they dump it down to the low post, the five
catches the ball, turns around, and goes for the dunk shot. That is the system,
the Lord Futo system. And that’s all it is.
More often than not, sex is the system that drives Henrytown. The novella is rare among contemporary works of American fiction for its ribald treatment of sex, whether through its objects—wieners, dildo capes, video pornography—or through the thing itself, which usually breaks down into its constituent movements: pumping, gripping, collaborating. Henrytown’s entire approach to sex might best be described with the title of Hwang’s exercise cassette: Bodies in Motion.
Hwang’s videotape may even explain the narrative system of Henrytown. The phrase bodies in motion implies the opposite of entropic death, and we know that entropy was the bogeyman of Mr. Erickson’s literary fathers, the postmodern novelists. For this new kind of novel, it seems to me, Mr. Erickson imagined a different sort of father figure: a nameless narrator who neither wishes to procreate nor act as a leavening hand, lifting his grotesques from the alien corn. Nor does he share in the dark paternalism of a brutal American history. Instead, like Aristotle’s Prime Mover, Mr. Erickson’s strange narrator sets Henrytown’s bodies in motion through love and amazement alone.