Thursday, August 21, 2014

Cervantes Redux

The picaresque novel is to prose fiction what the buddy film is to cinema. An undercurrent of sometimes good, sometimes dark humor runs through them, which may explain the appeal of both: Miguel de Cervantes' "Don Quixote," the definitive picaresco work of fiction and a pillar of modern Western literature, first appeared in 1605. But it still brings smiles to readers' faces, and nothing evokes Quixote's joust with windmills, which he ludicrously believes are giants, more than the sedan-become-assault-vehicle's crash into the parade grandstand in "Animal House," released in 1978. Recall, for example, Tim Matheson's line that seals the deal: "I think that this situation absolutely requires a really stupid and futile gesture on somebody's part."

But humor alone is not enough, and that's where the true picaresque narrative departs from the average buddy movie. The subgenre draws on themes that were present in Roman stories about gladiators and on Arabic literature so ascetic a slaphappy sidekick would have seemed out of place. The Arabian influence was very strong in everything Spanish: The Moors put most of the Iberian peninsula under the crescent flag in the Eighth Century and did not lose their last foothold until 1492, when the joint monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile defeated Emir Muhammad XII after the siege of Granada. Cervantes was born 55 years later.

I wasn't even thinking about roguish vagabonds when I began writing "The Leather Man." Its title character is a bigger-than-life football coach whom life seems determined to whittle down to size. But I did apply the word "picaresque" to Quintus LeClaire at one point in the writing process before editing it out. Rather than dominate the novel, his friendship with Preston "Taters" Jones is a subplot that enlivens it.

LeClaire is a war-damaged Marine who drops onto the the Leather Man's team through a series of circumstances and quickly becomes friends with Jones, a starter in the same Canyon State College backfield. Taters is important to Quintus, whose last close friend was killed in Vietnam, and vice versa. But, as much as they stabilize each other, each has a wild side that threatens to destabilize the other.

Taters, who plays blocking back to Quintus' featured tailback role in Canyon State's I Formation, is the son of a car dealer in Soda Springs. That's a blessing for Quintus, who wound up in Idaho after running afoul of the Canyon City police department while on a bus trip _ Taters provides the ride as well as being a pal, and it's quite a ride: a Dodge Coronet hardtop with a 425-horsepower, hemispherical-head engine that meets Taters' need for speed. In Chapter 22, the metallic green car with airbrushed flames on the hood is barely moving on a street near the campus _ and still attracts the attention of coaches Ben Steinbrecher and Jerry Wilson.
It was not yet midnight, the team's weekend curfew hour, but the coaches still found something unsettling in the passage of the car, its engine rumbling through chromed tailpipes with a voice choked on air and high-octane gasoline.
Wilson, who coaches the offensive backfield, and Steinbrecher, the defensive coordinator, have just come from a wild goose chase _ investigating a false drug-use allegation against quarterback Edison Green _ and Wilson remarks that they probably should have been after the two running backs, noting that, "LeClaire looks like he's breaking rules just lacing up his shoes." But they decide they've had enough curfew and rules enforcement and go home for the night.

The fun is just starting for Taters and Quintus, who pass a bottle of whiskey back and forth as they rumble through Canyon City neighborhoods in Chapter 23 until they arrive at a city park. There, they see a teammate, albeit from the defensive side of the ball and a known loner _ linebacker Brock Banning. Inebriated though they are, the two are mildly taken aback to see Banning urinating on a rest-room door. They ask why, and Banning gives a laconic reply: The door is locked.

Quintus and Taters could accept that as logical, but Banning's distracted behavior and uncoordinated movements draw Quintus' attention. No stranger to marijuana after nearly two years in Vietnam, he asks Banning if he has plenty of Zig-Zag paper, a favorite wrap for users. That irks Banning:
"You two are seriously impairing my enjoyment of the outdoors. Why don't you zigzag out of here while you're in condition to drive?"
Quintus ignores the threat, calls Banning "fat man" and tells him to wise up, because he's jeopardizing his career using pot in a 1960s small city with police seemingly everywhere. It becomes clear to Taters that his friend isn't so much worried about Banning's career as he is ready for his first fight since leaving the Marine Corps. He also sees a more sinister intent in Quintus' eyes:
It was then that Jones comprehended what it meant to be a combat veteran: He's playing a game. Banning thinks fighting means beating somebody up, and Quintus thinks it means only one man walks away. With that realization came the responsibility to keep it from happening.
Taters manages to separate the two, possibly saving a life and preserving Canyon State's season. He also comes out of the evening with a greater understanding of the adventures he's likely to run into hanging out with his new best friend.


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