Circumstantial Productions Publishing, 1999.
621 pages, $20 (paperback).
In his "Afterword" to the North Carolina Wesleyan College Press 1991 new expanded edition of Michael Rumaker's classic work Gringos and Other Stories, Robert Creeley remarks on the author's talents: "His writing has always a manner of exceptional caring for the general world despite the inexorable despair that confronts its persons." Earlier in the essay, Creeley reflects on Rumaker's perennial themes, "a common, terrifying recital of human dysfunction and want, placed in such a familiar circumstance." Creeley is well suited to the task of speaking about Rumaker's talents. The two men have known each other since Rumaker attended Black Mountain College during its literary heyday. Rumaker was a writing pupil of Charles Olson and a fellow student of North Carolina-native and poet-publisher Jonathan Williams. Pagan Days, Rumaker's long-awaited novel, confirms the authoritative simplicities in which Rumaker roots human stories.
Unlike the usual adult rebels in most of the Gringos stories and in Rumaker's classic gay works—the poem "The Fairies are Dancing All Over the World" and the novels and memoirs My First Satyrnalia, To Kill A Cardinal, A Day and a Night at the Baths, and Robert Duncan in San Francisco—in Pagan Days the protagonist is a young boy. First in South Philly and then along the Delaware River in Lenape, New Jersey, Mickey Lithwack, relates, through an innate capacity for curiosity and celebration, the nobility of his circumstances, the value of suffering, the gift of his own and others' marginality, and the insistent beauty of the world around him. His rite of passage simply, provocatively, and seamlessly told, traces the naturalness of Mickey's developing gay and artistic sensibility.
It's important to realize that the book only follows Mickey from birth to about nine years old. Critic Leverett T. Smith, Jr. adroitly observes in a letter to Rumaker (June 2001),
Coming of age? We'd need to redefine the phrase to fit Pagan Days. That it's a crucial period in Mickey's development is certainly so, but in many ways he's far from self-knowledge. This seems to be the substance of the book, that what Mickey learns about loving his family, what he responds to positively in the church, are important among those things which will eventually liberate him.
Like David Copperfield, Mickey narrates his life in an eternal present—aware of what's happening to him, even somehow aware that he is unfolding and becoming, but without any deep knowledge of where it will take him. But Mickey has the soul of an artist, and thus embraces what happens to him with unthinking astonishment, even pleasure, and a sense of naive self-discovery.
The time is the Depression. Mickey's father, "Stosh," loses his job and thus their home in Philly. The family of one girl, four boys, and their shy, loving, buck-toothed mother Nora, move to the country where things are cheaper, in hopes that Stosh's old friend Sam Beezley can get him a job at the nearby shipyard. Here begins Mickey's "living in the sticks," or "pagan days," as one of Mickey's teachers defines it: "Miss Prouty says pagans is them that lives in the sticks." Mickey narrates the story beginning with his birth. As the Depression intensifies, Mickey's father sinks deeper and deeper into drink and eventually into wife and child abuse, finding work only on the WPA road crews and the county relief dump truck. Mickey's mother, "Nor," worries constantly—about putting food on the table, about clothing the children, about losing family connections with her sisters in Philly and her recently deceased mother, and about Stosh's drinking. The local priest will not allow her to make confession since she admits to using condoms and resisting her husband's sex drive and violence.
Mickey's mother resonates as an influential force in Mickey's life. The first words of the novel are about her: "In the beginning she was a drum in me ears and then it got all quiet and I dint hear nothing excepting the drum of me own heart." At one particularly dark time, Mickey takes armfuls of roses and makes an altar around the image of Mary in his mother's bedroom:
It was the time of the wild roses and they was the first roses I ever saw, growing everywhere you looked in our front yard and in all the fields around, even back near the swamp . . . I couldn't get enough of sniffing them roses. Thinking that if she didn't have a penny for a candle then all the flowers I was picking . . . each and every one of them could be a candle on her bureau.
Always he seeks to preserve and protect his mother, to honor her as he has learned to honor the Virgin Mary. Nora's moral force is a protected, unsullied presence that Mickey constantly refers to as an example of how to live. She becomes intertwined with the heady mysticism of the church, the purity of Mary and the saints, occupying the center position in the Lithwack family, particularly for Mickey and his father, throughout its difficulties.
Mickey's siblings Frank, Buster, deaf "Slap," and the younger Kate and Danny, though secondary characters, are fully drawn. As are the other minor characters—Nor's sisters; Sam's wife Babes; the poor neighbors the Snarps; the ostentatious neighbors the Mahoneys whose house burns to the ground; the teachers—Mrs. Feek, Miss Riggs, and Miss Prouty; and Father Mack and Sister Joseph Mary. Each is as lovingly portrayed as another. Not one is stock cast or un-sympathetic. Each demonstrates to Mickey some aspect of what it is to be human. For example, rumors of the local society columnist Charley's clandestine desires (conveyed to Nora by Mrs. Beezley as "Ya know, he likes to . . . kiss their peepees") both intrigue and repel the young Mickey. Mickey observes the townspeople making fun of Charley behind his back, while obsequiously courting him in hopes of seeing their names in the social column. Through observing the "town queer," Mickey learns to hide his own desires, but later, because of Charley's presence, confronts them, recognizing how self-servingly hypocritical people can be.
Mickey is befriended by Earl Snarp Jr., the poorest, most rebellious, most sexually canny boy in the neighborhood, as well as Ronnie Mahoney, the richest, and with his Shirley Temple curls, the most sissy one. When he becomes an altar boy, his affections redirect to his mentor, Timothy Burnside, whose worldly handsome but saintly masculinity he hopes to learn: "He had what my mother called 'clean-cut looks' beneath eyebrows that were like dark wings joined together and eyelashes that were just as dark and thick, like Tyrone Power's eyes . . . his chest . . . strong like Boy's was in the Tarzan movies." Such movie star grandeur contrasts sharply with Earl Jr.'s dirty hygiene and Ronnie's exaggerated primness.
Mickey's highly sensitive response to his world intensifies his experiences through the lens of the erotic and the sensual. His pagan dances in the forest with Earl Jr., his dressing up in Ronnie's mother's clothes, the smells of the swamp and forest, the tender infatuation he has for Timothy, the attraction and repulsion to Charley, the queasiness he feels at Father Mack's advances, the charged romanticism of Sister Joseph Mary's and Miss Prouty's stories of saints and natural disasters, the complicated dance of love and terror between his parents, and his own budding sexuality all create in Mickey a vertiginous feeling—what is truth, what is wrong or right?
Mickey views the contradictions within the Catholic Church, first, through the gold communion platen worth enough to feed him and his family for a year, and then through the duplicitous overweight priest who presses against him in the sacristy "smiling. 'What lovely eyes you have,' . . . his voice as soft as the watered silk of the vestment he'd just slipped out of." Mickey struggles to reconcile the inconsistencies within Catholicism, which repel him, with its erotic mesmerizing beauty, such as that of St. Theresa (whom Mickey studies in first communion class).
Mickey struggles to understand the weight of each in his relationships and experiences. Rumaker's locale is always the right here, right now, and through Mickey's poetic eyes, and his childlike yet prodigiously intuitive voice, Rumaker's delicate approach is not without melody, surprise and layers of meaning as in this passage where Mickey receives a surprise beating:
I danced around him while he held me by the throat, holding back crying as long as I could, out of pride, but looking back wild at my mother, pleading with my eyes for her to stop him. But she'd already lowered her head again, bent over her crocheting like she didn't want to see . . .
But the more I tried to get out of his way, the more furious he got, so that he walloped me all the harder, his face as red as Miss Prouty's fires, as red as the fires of Father Mack's hell, his hair all hanging in his face when he bent to me, then sticking up like a rooster's comb when he reared back and raised his arm up again, his breath coming fast the way I sometimes heard it in the night in the dark of their bedroom, the way mine did and the way Earl Jr.'s did, playing Slaves and Masters in the wood.
"You gonna do as I say? You gonna be good?" he shouted, and me yelling back, "Yes! Yes! I'll be good! I'll do anything you want!" promising him anything, not knowing what I was promising, not knowing why he'd come after me, or what I hadn't done that he wanted me to do.
Finally, my mother, low at first, then raising her voice so he would hear her, murmured, "Awright, that's enough now, he's learnt his lesson whatever he done." But it seemed like the very sound of her voice only infuriated him all the more even though her complaining grew fainter and fainter til she fell into a silence like she did when he walloped Slap, as if she knew, like my brothers seemed to know, if he was beating me or any one of us, he wouldn't bother her.
Such deftness propels the novel into generous delights reminiscent of Joyce's Dubliners, Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie, Dickens' novels, and Capote's Thanksgiving and Christmas memories.
Suddenly, the attack on Pearl Harbor brings war and war brings jobs. Work brings wholesome food, electricity, and the radio's music, ease, and laughter. The novel ironically ends with peace in the family and community as war breaks out.
Circumstances in Rumaker's work are oftentimes volatile and potentially shattering, yet Mickey's light heart and the enduring love of family preserve and enlarge him. Rumaker's characters breathe like Rodin's figures—they are alive, real, sinewy, torn, ecstatic, and transformative. Rumaker has never received the attention he deserves—his simplicity of expression can be misunderstood as lack of tension, and his celebration of homosexuality is often considered too delicate and Edenically innocent. This partly explains Rumaker's difficulty in finding a big-name publisher for this book. Establishment publishers must think him too quietly old-fashioned; publishers of "traditional" fiction too bold, in creating a precocious rural gay character no more than nine years old.
Rumaker's work has always been about those who struggle against social, economic, and moral odds. Mickey Lithwack is one of his most powerful characters in such a struggle, the novel combining autobiographical truth with solidly American narrative force. In Eroticizing the Nation: Michael Rumaker's Fiction, Leverett T. Smith reminds us that Pagan Days protests against general stereotypical notions of maleness and nineteenth-century notions of womanhood. Along with its focus on Catholicism in the working class, Rumaker creates a vital and important piece of social criticism, as well as an engaging "read."
Once, as Mickey dances naked for Earl Jr. in a clearing, he sings to Earl Jr. "as much as [to] myself, singing like I used to sing to my mother, I imagined the grass was hair I was dancing in, like I was dancing in long green hair, like the Indian grass was the green hair not only in the clearing but over all the ground everywhere all over the world."
Mickey's days as a "pagan" open his eyes to an almost mystical, but certainly aesthetic, view of the world where each experience, no matter how difficult or painful, offers him a vision that will carry him through life. Pagan Days enriches our literature, and reinforces that the avant-garde need not be unintelligible to communicate the complexity of being human.