The dialogue in Michael Rumaker’s first collection of stories, Gringos and Other Stories, published in 1966 by Grove Press hasn’t aged well. It hasn’t aged well not because it isn’t well written or doesn’t carry the story forward but I think it hasn’t aged well because dialogue doesn’t age well unless it is stylized in the way Raymond Chandler’s dialogue is hard-boiled or Hemingway’s dialogue is kind of burnished and unreal and probably seemed unreal from the moment people first picked up a new copy of The Sun Also Rises. In “Exit 3” a beyond-drunk Marine says, “Don’t ‘buddy; me. I ain’t no goddamned solider. I’ll show you who the hell I am.” The dialogue reads the way things read in the “Wild One,” deliberately rough, and because it is deliberate, kind of false. And so the dialogue has aged like fake leather seats or plastic.
The other thing that was strange about the collection was that despite the sometime corniness of the rough dialogue the stories do not contain an interpretive track. The events in the story unfold in dialogue, action, and minimal scenic description. They lack, and it isn’t missed, the interpretive track that seems necessary with most contemporary stories, that assures of the significance of what we are reading, of the moral weight. Instead “Exit 3” follows a man who had a very drunk, violent Marine foisted off on him by some soldiers. The protagonist follows the Marine around in an attempt to get him home safely. The Marine grows increasingly irrational until the protagonist realized there is nothing he can do keep the Marine safe. “He began to shiver and took out a pack of cigarets form the pocket of his coat and lit one. He stuck he cigaret between his lips and, picking up his suitcase, stepped off the curb and started over the street at a brisk pace, heading across town.” Emotion and the significance of the events are veiled behind concrete action and objects. It is easy enough to know how the protagonist “feels.” To name his emotions would be to some fix them, like a pin through the back of a beetle. In contrast toward the end of Anthony Doerr’s recent and celebrated short story, “The Caretaker,” we are given the feelings of the protagonist. “Everything feels very tenuous, just then, and terribly beautiful, as if he is straddling two worlds, the one he came from and the one he is going to. He winders if this is what it was like for his mother, in the moments before she did, if she saw the same kind of light, if she felt like anything was possible.”
I found Rumaker’s book when I was visiting my friend in North Hollywood. I picked it up because the dust jacket mentioned that he had studied at the Black Mountain College and I was wondering what the prose would be like from this school. I’m not so sure the book gives me many clues. Rumaker’s writing is plain and direct and doesn’t contain any inflections lifted from Charles Olson. While I was browsing among the books in the store, a man out of work because of the writer’s strike was talking with a massive voice to the clerk. He was a voice actor who mentioned he’d been the narrator in Spaceghost in the sixties, Gary Owens. I’m not sure how he felt being out of work, but his voice was very loud. He should get voice work or something.