Wednesday, October 23, 2019

the last book I ever read (Paradise by Donald Barthelme, excerpt four)

from Paradise by Donald Barthelme:

Simon was delighted to be fifty-three, lean and aggressive except for his belly which was not lean and aggressive. He was younger than I.M. Pei, younger than Dizzy Gillespie, younger than the Pope. He had more wisdom packed in his little finger than was to be found in the entire Sweets catalog, with its pages of alluring metal moldings and fire-rated expansion joints. He had kept asbestos and asbestos-containing products out of every job he had ever worked on, sometimes at considerable cost. He had a daughter who would come into the kitchen at breakfast and say, “Who’s got the goddamn New York Times?” Sarah did not wake well. He could spell 49,999 words correctly and make a pretty good stab at many of the rest. He had a Bronze Star, courtesy of a clerk-typist in his unit whose gift for writing citations for routinely rotating personnel had been envied even at Corps level. The IRS regarded him as a cash cow, on a small scale, and regularly sent him loving salutations, including, one year, a box of Godiva chocolates. He could speak persuasively in meetings, maintaining a grave and thoughtful countenance and letting all the dumb guys speak first. He had about twice the élan of youth, normal élan plus extra élan derived from raw need and grain spirits. Several of the male members of his family had lived to be fifty-nine or sixty. “Grow or die” was the maxim that most accorded with his experience and when he did not think of himself as a giraffe he thought of himself as a tree, a palm, schematically a skinny curving vertical with a lot of furor at the top. With colored felt pens and a pad of tracing paper he could produce impressive sketches in twenty minutes, which he then had to reconcile with reality and sweat over for forty days, cursing himself for his facility. “What about the cornstalk?” A design prof had told the students that there were no right angles in nature, and Simon had raised the question of the cornstalk. Had he to do it again, thirty years later, he would have raised the question of the telephone pole, a deterioration of sensibility, perhaps. He rushed toward things, normally, his present quietude a parenthesis in a life not unmarked by strife and contestation. Pipe bombs did not bother him so long as they did not blow his face off. The assassination of the Swedish Prime Minister, on the other hand, scarred his brain. He had met Palme once, at a conference on the work of the Greek planner Constantin Doxiodes in Stockholm in 1972, at which Doxiodes had declared himself a criminal because he had put human beings into high-rise buildings. Palme had been a beneficent presence, a short man who wanted everything to go well, wanted the world to succeed in good socialist fashion, gay and optimistic. “The deed of a lunatic,” the Swedish police said, Simon feeling despair for humankind. A friend, a Polish architect who had been at Penn with him, visited him in Philadelphia in 1984 on a grant from the Ford Foundation. Carol had made osso buco and they had talked for hours. “Socialism, finally, doesn’t work,” Ryszard had said. “You get, you know, too many bad guys at the top.” Ryszard’s father had been a deputy in the Polish parliament, a Communist who sat for some years and had then been jailed following a change in the leadership. It was the first time that anyone had said to Simon, with the authority of three decades of involvement, that socialism didn’t work. “You get, at the summit, not the worst but the next-worst.” Simon took Ryszard to the airport, gave him as a going-away present a Tizio lamp, regretted that he saw him so seldom, wished that he lived next door, on Pine Street. Carol, when they were twenty-five and twenty-six, had been a smart-ass, an admirable smart-ass. “I love you but it’s only temporary,” she had said. She was fond of saying to people, “Here’s wishing you a happy and successful first marriage.” Simon could life refrigerators other people couldn’t lift. He had almost crushed his left hand getting a refrigerator down a set of right-angled stairs for a neighbor. His muscles responded brightly to challenge. Fifty-three, he thought, was not so much worse than twenty-three. All giraffes think this.

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