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“He Doesn’t Worry Too Much If Mediocre People Get Killed in Wars and Such”
Tito Perdue’s The Smut Book & Cynosura

[1]

Edmund Dulac, “The Buried Moon” from The Red Cross Fairy Book, 1916.

4,430 words

He had me at: “It was still the South, he knew it for a certainty when they passed an aged negro in overalls hobbling down along the highway toward no conceivable destination. The land was cursed. God, he loved it.” [1] [2] Tito Perdue, author of the two novels here reviewed, The Smut Book and Cynosura, is a proud Southerner who has enjoyed skewering the sacred cows of these, our cursed times since he became a writer in the early 1980s. The dual and very different natures of men and women he has celebrated, “old-style Negroes” he has preferred. [2] [3] Perdue wrote both Bildungsromans in the grand tradition of Southern coming-of-age literature, but told in the voice of old age and in short lengths of fewer than two hundred pages. [3] [4] The Smut Book followed a year in the life of Leland (Lee) Pefley, an eighth-grader living in a 1950s Alabama suburb. Though its title suggested otherwise, Smut was not an erotic novel. The raciest scenes featured a few kisses and open admiration of the female form, nothing that a well-adjusted twelve-year-old couldn’t handle.

Cynosura also took place in the 50s, but further north in the hills of Tennessee. Its main characters, never named save for the boy K—— and the girl G——-L——, were each possessed of extraordinary qualities that made them worthy of one another (and no one else would do), the former for his tireless ambition and intellect, and the latter for her staggering beauty as well as an ability to reduce grown men to tears when playing the cello or the harp (from this point forward, I will refer to K——- as “Kip” and to G——-L—— as “Gloriana”). Both novels explored five main themes: Time, Beauty, Music, Color, and Death, the enmeshed quality of each neatly encapsulated by the narrator’s observation in Cynosura, that “Like music or flowers, things like [beauty] aren’t generally allowed to go on very long.” [4] [5]

A few observations before proceeding to the more profound topics that Perdue used these novels to explore: one might get the sense that the author was not really interested in the characters as characters per se, but in the archetypes they represented, the philosophies they espoused. They were “the specials,” young people convinced that their gifts made them too deep for “the normals” to understand them. Perdue recycled, for example, the same formula for Kip as he did for Lee (I believe Perdue meant them to be the same person — Lee — but for the sake of the review, I’ll play along). Both were (rather arrogant) insomniacs who reveled in the rain and in the holy hours of the night; they shared a love of stamp collecting and had “morose” fathers with large noses. They suffered fits of emotion during dramatic musical scores. Most of the adults, meanwhile, were skeleton sketches, lacking flesh and blood. No parent seemed to have strong bonds with their children in Smut or Cynosura (a school principal and a college chemistry teacher were the ones who bore the most resemblance to father figures), [5] [6] suggestive of an older thought-pattern in which people understood reproduction as more of a duty than a delight; the fact that sons and daughters would grow up to become useful contributors to the household economy outweighed any sentimental reasons for having offspring.

Perdue’s writing had a number of eccentricities (not a bad thing; good authors leave voice fingerprints behind for the readers to find), one of them the practice of beginning sentences with the verb and then the subject, a common structure in poetry, e.g., “Came then to mind a famous saying that Lee had heard . . .” [6] [7] Almost immediately the writing churned up a feeling of odd familiarity, just beneath the surface, just beyond explanation. It had a self-conscious quality to its cadence, a detachment. Only later did I realize that rather than a modern work of fiction, I was reading something closer to a chivalric romance in which a knight-errant dedicated himself to Truth and Beauty, scorned men who settled for less than excellence, who lacked the virtuous qualities that he believed himself to embody.

Compare, for instance, the following passages:

He had duties awaiting him . . . plus half-a-dozen other self-imposed projects designed to make him a better and better angel of his own superior nature. His wardrobe was in good state . . . He had seven or eight ties, all blue, an antique wristwatch measured in Roman numerals, and a pair of good, black leather shoes. He was still about six feet, one and his person was distributed equably over his substrate frame. No one needed to know about the little .32-caliber revolver he carried always; they never tried to interfere with him, anyway. [7] [8]

and:

[The] great pile of gilded war-gear glittered . . . [He] stepped on it, took the steel in hand. The doublet he dressed in was clear Turkestan stuff; Then came the courtly cape, cut with skill, finely lined with fur and fastened close. Then they set the steel shoes on the strong man’s feet, lapped his legs in steel with lovely greaves . . . [He had] a surcoat richly wrought, gold spurs attached in pride, a silken sword belt athwart, and steadfast blade at his side. [8] [9]

The first paragraph described Kip from Cynosura as he prepared to go in search of his mysterious lady love in “the medieval Tennessee countryside,” and the second described Sir Gawain donning his suit of armor to meet his fearsome foe, the Green Knight, in order to satisfy a debt of honor. Perdue does not write books, he is a troubadour who has composed les chansons. Little wonder that his motifs are lofty things that require Capital Letters.

[10]

Edmund Dulac, an illustration in Stories from Hans Andersen, 1911

1. Time 

Uncanny, how the old time smells still lingered here, essence of camphor and linseed oil, cakes, lavender, and pies. A thousand years might go by. [9] [11]

Perdue wrote of men and women out of time, or beyond their time. Both Smut and Cynosura took place in the comparatively idyllic 1950s, when there was less crime and fewer colored people mucking up the place. Everyone listened to radio programs, and children walked to school without fear. Television had not yet taken their brains hostage. People knew their places in society, a sense of security that lent individuals, communities, and the entire nation self-assurance, confidence, purpose. Humans have generally been happier when they knew where they “fit.”

Even so, Lee, Kip, and Gloriana all itched to escape somewhere else, or rather, to sometime else, for they did not fit. Was there not a way, “Was it feasible? To go back from 1950 and do [the Civil War] over again? Lee looked for but was unable to find anyone [in the room] who wasn’t willing to try.” [10] [12] Were there really no dragons left to slay, no more impossible quests on which to embark, no more leave-takings to be had with tossed flowers and thrown farewells from the balconies of tearful ladies? If not, then what exactly was the point of existence? These characters were exquisitely aware that each moment, in all its uniqueness and vibrance, happened only once and at a blink, never to be repeated. The exact time of fruition was the exact time of rot, where its bloom vanished into whatever inexorable maw hoards all the lost fragments of our universe.

Time played an especially significant role in Cynosura, for Gloriana knew that she would die young. And because she knew this, she detached from most of the world and from the people around her. They might have been prisoners of the moment, products of their era, but she imagined herself transcending their petty concerns. Instead, she resolved not to give in to anyone save the man worthy of her.

For his part, Lee felt most alive during his visit to his paternal grandmother’s home in rural Alabama, a cabin whose walls had sheltered the family since antebellum days. And it was in this small community, during these scenes when Perdue was at his best. If I had a criticism to make, it would be that occasionally the stories felt too bloodless; I knew intellectually that the characters and I, we were all in the South — but sometimes it did not feel like we were in the South. But chapters like this one grounded the novel once again with details like that of Leland’s uncle’s “exceedingly sharp” knife with which the sunburnt fellow used to eat his fruit and “pare” his nails. Lee noticed that “the man took no great care, apparently, when he [did so], and the front of his trousers bore all kinds of tiny stains.” [11] [13]

Later that night his uncle took Lee, Lee’s younger brother, and a crippled colored man called “Blue” night-fishing. They met a few spooks while out on the water’s moon-glow: other blacks, a few of whom Lee waved at, receiving no reply. Of course, “he knew . . . that these people were much less courteous at night when they could be identified but by family members only,” and on one occasion when Blue began to jabber to another of his kind in an all-but-unintelligible dialect, Lee could discern the phrase, “white trash.” [12] [14] This was the kind of thing that only a Southerner would know to say, would be cognizant of, the “fog and smoke” of primordial Alabama, the strange mixture of intimacy and contempt between the races. In this country, Lee savored coming awake “unto an antique world” of washbowls and old portraits. And as he watched his withered grandmother and raw-boned uncle in their natural habitats, Lee knew that soon their world would succumb to the same Fate that doomed ancient Babylon. In the old barn he felt “surrounded by the ghosts of ten thousand animals jostling for space.” [13] [15] Indeed, “a thousand years might go by,” but Leland was determined to commit all of it to memory.

2. Beauty

She was not of this world. Her future was decided and always had been — to assail the world with two different forms of beauty, straight out of a double-barrel shotgun. [14] [16]

In keeping with the chanson tradition that Perdue emulated, Cynosura was in some ways a retelling of La Belle Dame sans Merci[15] [17] Gloriana was fully aware of the effect her surpassing beauty had on those around her. She wanted their attention so that she could then ignore all of it. Cruelty and beauty have never been separate things, for great beauty excites devastation. Have readers never found themselves gazing on some large and moving piece of art and then felt suddenly destroyed, almost like an assault had taken place? If not, then you need to seek this sensation out, to seek the kind of sublime beauty that gives rise to it and reminds you of your soul — at whatever cost.

Gloriana claimed the sun as her own, for she “carried [that] sunshine in her [own] hair.” The German language appealed to her in part because, “in accord with her own belief, these people had imputed femininity to the Sun.” [16] [18] And just as the sun will strip the rods and cones from any eye that looks overlong into its wonderful and terrible glare, so would gazing at Gloriana ruin a person. Kip often felt “drenched” as he sat across from her, basking “in the aura of her beauty and the sunrays that formed an ambit that almost, but not quite, reached all the way to him.” It also caused Kip to go mad — it “‘Hurts, hurts, hurts!’ he said. ‘I want to eat her.’” [17] [19]

Neither was Smut’s Lee immune to feminine beauty. Girls’ smiles “transfixed” him to the point beyond which he “couldn’t endure it.” He felt panicked at “the beauty of things, of music, darkness, and the world,” often withdrawing into himself and thus into three-day-long depressions. [18] [20] These were characters who did not want their lives to be made from the sum stuff of ordinary moments, but they sought intensity of experience. Going blind did not mean that one had lost his sight, but that once he had seen glory with the naked eye, had witnessed the peak of existence, had lived life to its top. Nothing else would do for Perdue’s young aesthetes. But because beauty can hurt, can mock, because it glows — it has also always attracted to it those who are ugly and incapable of the same. Their perverse mash of adoration and hatred of all things noble causes them to smash the beautiful, or to consume it lustfully. Beauty is therefore dangerous, but also endangered every moment that it continues to lure attention and proclaim its superiority. Which the hunter and which the prey? It is perhaps why beauty usually fades so quickly — God wants to spare it and the rest of creation a prolonged agony of this kind. Or perhaps we have a jealous sun that brooks no competition, only thralldom. Wilting, aging, these might be defensive processes rather than degenerative ones.

[21]

Edmund Dulac, an illustration from The Dreamer of Dreams by the Queen of Roumania, 1915.

3. Music

They were playing Wagner that night, an instrumental version of Parsifal that caused him to look up and blink and then set his book off to one side. Something was happening in that music, a question of forlorn hills, dark clouds, and plangent horns from far away. [19] [22]

Music cannot exist without the concept of time; conductors time musicians’ entrances, the metronome knocks out a beat, singers hold their notes, and all songs are ephemeral, for they must end when the pages run out. No performance will sound the same twice. Music can also evoke a certain time and place. Lee vowed to remember the heartbreaking sounds of the 1950s “Tennessee Waltz” — a memory that he might conjure as a nostalgic comfort during darker times of need, for they were surely coming. He loved to dance and sway with a lovely girl in his arms — it lent him transcendence. But other jukebox ballads like “Bonaparte’s Retreat” caused him to believe that some popular songs “of the times . . . should never have been allowed into public circulation,” so dangerous was their potential to incite a riot of flesh and of chaos. [20] [23] Ironic then that Lee made a poor musician, himself. He lived in fear that his junior-high orchestra conductor would discover that he could barely force a squeak from his clarinet, much less master an entire score. He was forever breaking or losing the reed necessary to play the instrument. “Seen from a distance, he looked like a homunculus sucking on a pipe.” [21] [24] But sometimes loving a thing for which one has no talent is healthy. In fact, for love to flourish, that is often a necessary condition.

In Cynosura, Gloria did not suffer much from that cursed blessing, and therefore she loved very little. One thing she did revere was her music, and unlike Lee, she possessed great aptitude for the cello and the harp (performing with the latter was ideal, since it showed her onstage in a more striking manner, to her best advantage). It was during one such concert that Kip first noticed her and practically fainted at the sight. How was he to cope with such musical and feminine beauty all at once? Though the story continued beyond this first glimpse, I think it killed him. After all, La Belle Dame never took prisoners. And who would want her to?

NB: Don’t think I missed that sentence written with an arbitrary breeze and toward the bottom of page 79, Mr. Perdue. If readers want an explanation to this cryptic reference, they will have to read Cynosura for themselves.

4. Color

Only now did he understand why she had chosen to dress in forest green. [22] [25]

What does the color “green” mean to you, readers? Money and sour grapes? Inexperience and flesh taken or fruit picked too soon from the vine? Since we’re discussing the similarities between Perdue’s fiction and medieval poetry, let’s return to Sir Gawain. At the beginning of the story, as King Arthur and his retinue sat down to enjoy a “fine Christmas feast,” a party-crasher arrived in the awesome form of the Green Knight. Without dismounting from his horse, he rode into the great hall — a visage “half a giant on earth . . . Men gaped at the hue of him ingrained in garb and mien, a fellow fiercely grim, and all a glittering green.” [23] [26] A specter! Green is earthly and unearthly, youthful healthiness and sickly pallor of vaporous bog, the color of growing things, of the natural world — but also the color of the preternatural, for what living person has ever been green? Indeed, the Knight was something other than mortal, and when Sir Gawain, at the weird visitor’s insistence, cut off his head with a great axe, “yet the fellow did not fall, nor falter one whit, but . . . seized his splendid head and straightaway lifted it . . . as if nothing had happened to him . . . He twisted his trunk about, that gruesome body that bled; he caused much dread and doubt by the time his say was said.” [24] [27] As per their oath of agreement, the Green Knight charged Gawain with finding him by next Christmas, so that he could deal a return blow of his own. “I will await you at the Green Chapel,” the terrible head declared, then the Knight rode out and left the company behind in their amazement.

[28]

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 1967

And what does this have to do with the novels under review? Perdue’s Gloriana often apparelled herself in green. She “appeared in a skirt that came down to just above the knee, a taut thing as green as mint;” the narrator described how it was on a “Thursday, 1955, that [he] encountered this angel (in a green sweater) for the first time.” She habitually wore “two sapphires, tiny and green, fixed to her earlobes.” When seeking to lure her paramour on a chase, she fled into the woods, “dress[ed] in forest green.” And, Kip ruefully realized, “it was difficult to track her in moonlight of the same exact color as her hair.” [25] [29] Her preternatural beauty made her almost as startling a vision as the fell and headless knight, the nearly physical blow her presence caused was just as terrible as the blow promised by that phantom horseman. She was the youthful green of maidenhood, of vibrance, and her beauty would remain evergreen, since an early death was destined to freeze her in time, at the moment of her perfect loveliness. The greenness of pride, of vanity filled her with pain at the mere possibility that there might somewhere exist a creature more beautiful. [26] [30] Among her admirers she inspired despair and a desperate desire to worship at the altar of her “green chapel.” As the new lovers, Kip and Gloriana, looked out upon the night, “the Moon was shining greenly over a sea much like the one that lay over against Cornwall in Tristan’s day [another allusion to chivalric poetry].” [27] [31] At times, she was the green of a monster.

5. Death 

They comprised, those people, a phantasmagoric scene, so much so that he strove to ward off one of his most constant and unwanted thoughts, namely that in days to come they’d all have turned into a few hundred bones scattered about at large. [28] [32]

At last, the final theme in both senses of the word: Death, the haunt hovering over both Smut and Cynosura. To anyone who would listen, Lee foretold his imminent death. He was fated to be a tragic and somewhat glamorous figure taken during the prime of his life. A vague liver issue, he revealed, and in terms of eliciting female attention, the very first chapter in an old book of tricks. At times, this preoccupation with death caused him to lose touch with the reality in front him, to the girl he was dancing with. “Life,” he would suddenly realize, “was short,” and though the girl in his arms “was pretty . . . he had only to jump up and down and turn around and she [would] have turned into a construct of bones . . . Standing eye to eye, he could see how her jaw ended in a hinge.” [29] [33] The South of his ancestors would vanish, the world of his grandmother and uncle would die along with them, and the family home would rot back into the earth as if none of them had lived at all.

Although his “bad liver” failed to grant him death and thus his eternal youth, Lee did experience death of a kind, or a transformation, during Smut’s final chapters. Readers who wish to avoid spoilers should skip ahead to the next paragraph. After returning home from his grandmother’s house, Lee’s parents abruptly told him that they were all moving several hours away (to a child, this length might as well have been the same distance as from Earth to Jupiter — the absolute end of the world). His friends reinforced this feeling when their farewells seemed like ones given to a condemned man at the hour of his execution. Cecil, Lee’s handsome, tall, and charismatic best friend scoffed at the suggestion that Lee would visit. No, he declared, “you aren’t never coming back here. Never, never, never . . . you bastard!” [30] [34] And I think he was right.

Cynosura was a novel more obviously about death, for the narrator revealed from the beginning that Gloriana would not live past her early twenties. And so the relationship between Kip and Gloriana was electric, hypercharged, and full of portents. While out for a drive, “They came to a traffic signal standing out in the middle of nowhere, a reminder that death might be waiting up ahead . . . ‘There,’ [Kip] said. ‘It was a place just like that where Oedipus killed his father.’ ‘Good grief. Why?’ [Gloriana] asked. ‘And that windmill? Straight out of Bruegel.’ ‘There?’ ‘No, no, that’s just a gallows with a skeleton hanging from it.’” [31] [35] On his journey toward the Green Chapel and what he believed was certain death, Gawain confronted at every “bank or breach . . . a foe in front of him . . . and so foul and fierce a one that he was forced to fight . . . he had death struggles with dragons, did battle with wolves, warred with wild men who dwelt among the crags . . . and ogres panted after him on the high fells.” [32] [36] Each victory was sweeter the more time bled away moment by moment until the hour of his second meeting with the Green Knight. “A thousand years may pass,” and some people will not have taken a full drought from the heady wine cup of an all-consuming quest, or of an overwhelming love. For others, only weeks — days! — are required.

Fall in love with beauty and tradition again; while away an afternoon reading these short, but profound romances chansons that defy the Dark Ages.

[37]

Edmund Dulac, “Silence,” in The Bells and Other Poems, 1912.

*  *  *

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Notes

[1] [38] Tito Perdue, The Smut Book (Brent, Alabama: Standard American Publishing, 2020), 133.

[2] [39] Tito Perdue, Cynosura (Brent, Alabama: Standard American Publishing, 2020), 160.

[3] [40] Other examples include: William Faulkner’s The Reivers, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and Olive Ann Burns’ Cold Sassy Tree.

[4] [41] Cynosura, 94.

[5] [42] It seems petty to mention this quibble in the main body of the review, but I did raise an eyebrow when the narrator of Cynosura, the same chemistry professor mentioned, described his sojourn in Kraków during which he took a teaching position at a university there. He left the States, he explained, in order to escape from the stultifying atmosphere of American academia. While I sympathize with this view, of course, I will also gently point out that the Soviets controlled mid-century Poland. Kraków’s overlords were not exactly ringing liberty bells and championing scholarly freedom. On the other hand and given our present and contrasting realities, maybe being locked for decades behind the Iron Curtain had its benefits.

[6] [43] Smut, 34.

[7] [44] Cynosura, 86.

[8] [45] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Brian Stone, trans. (New York: Penguin, 1974), 43.

[9] [46] Smut, 138-39.

[10] [47] Ibid., 48

[11] [48] Ibid., 143.

[12] [49] Ibid., 159.

[13] [50] Ibid., 143.

[14] [51] Cynosura, 38.

[15] [52] La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad (1819) was a poem written by John Keats:

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, / Alone and palely loitering? / The sedge has withered from the lake, / And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, / So haggard and so woe-begone? / The squirrel’s granary is full, / And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow, / With anguish moist and fever-dew, / And on thy cheeks a fading rose / Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads, / Full beautiful — a faery’s child, / Her hair was long, her foot was light, / And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head, / And bracelets too, and fragrant zone; / She looked at me as she did love, / And made sweet moan.
I set her on my pacing steed, / And nothing else saw all day long, / For sidelong would she bend, and sing / A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet, / And honey wild, and manna-dew, / And sure in language strange she said — / ‘I love thee true’.
She took me to her Elfin grot, / And there she wept and sighed full sore, / And there I shut her wild wild eyes / With kisses four.
And there she lullèd me asleep, / And there I dreamed — Ah! woe betide! — / The latest dream I ever dreamt / On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too, / Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; / They cried — ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci / Thee hath in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam, / With horrid warning gapèd wide, / And I awoke and found me here, / On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here, / Alone and palely loitering, / Though the sedge is withered from the lake, / And no birds sing.

[16] [53] Ibid., 39.

[17] [54] Ibid., 91, 110.

[18] [55] Smut, 4, 49.

[19] [56] Cynosura, 36.

[20] [57] Smut, 37.

[21] [58] Ibid., 21.

[22] [59] Cynosura., 106.

[23] [60] The Green Knight, 26.

[24] [61] Ibid., 37.

[25] [62] Cynosura, 101, 13, 69, 106.

[26] [63] Ibid., 46.

[27] [64] Ibid., 157.

[28] [65] Smut, 124.

[29] [66] Ibid., 190.

[30] [67] Ibid., 195.

[31] [68] Cynosura, 160.

[32] [69] The Green Knight, 48.