Welcome!

Dear Readers:

Welcome to Awful Avalanche, here is my blog concept and what I do [updated 6 January 2019]:

My blogposts are written in English.  I review content mostly from the Russian-language online press, in search of stories which interest me.  From time to time I venture out and review other things, for example, opera or movies!

My target audience:  Russophiles, or anybody else who is interested.

As my blog concept evolved, it contains content divided into the following categories:

  • Animal Rights
  • Art Criticism
  • Ballet
  • Breaking News
  • Cat Fighting
  • Celebrity Gossip
  • Economics
  • Education
  • Friendship of Peoples
  • Human Dignity
  • Humor
  • Linguistics
  • Medicine and Health
  • Military and War
  • Navalniana
  • Opera
  • Popular Culture
  • Religion
  • Russian History
  • Sex and Spy Scandals
  • Space, Science and Technology
  • Sports
  • The Great Game
  • True Crime

I hope you read and enjoy my posts!

Sincerely yours,

yalensis

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Book Review: Porgy – Part VIII

Dear Readers:

In our recap of the story, where we left off:  Bess, practically starving and at the end of her rope, has made one final, desperate attempt to save herself:  She gives herself to Porgy.  In Bess’ world, a woman needs a man to survive.  Previously she was Crown’s woman, now she is Porgy’s woman.  When she made that decision to enter Porgy’s room, she believed she was debasing herself to the nth degree; to her, Porgy is the bottom of the barrel, the street beggar with the goat.  But her biological survival instinct, barely flickering within her, pushed her to this one, last, desperate step.

God’s grace comes in mysterious ways, as the saying goes.  Or:  “Salvation might appear from an unexpected direction.”  Even to a woman who has fallen so hard, and so far, as our Bess.

In Heyward’s story, we don’t find out right away, or really at all, how things went in that room across the alley from Maria’s cook shop.  Did they make love?  Probably, but we don’t know for sure.

Come to think of it, we don’t know much about Bess’ relationship with Crown.  We know that he is a violent brute and probably an abuser, we know that Bess has a scar on her face, but we don’t know for sure (and never learn, in fact) whether it was Crown who cut her, or somebody else in her debased, wretched life.

Even after Bess hooks up with Porgy, we don’t see or learn much about their relationship.  We have just some basic observations to go on.  The next time we see this “couple”, it’s when Serena Robbins comes knocking on Porgy’s door, and finds a woman within.  It’s pretty clear that she knows who this woman is.  They all know.  And they all disapprove.  The residents of Catfish Row do not send a Welcome Wagon to greet Bess.  We shall see Bess’ struggles to fit in and find a friend.

Serena uses her contacts to help get Old Peter out of the slammer

In any case, when Serena comes a’knockin’, it’s not in relation to Bess.  Instead, she bears some news about Porgy’s chum, Old Peter.  Recall that Old Peter is still cooling his heels in the jail, detained as a “material witness” in the Robbins murder case.  Robbins’ killer, Crown, is still on the lam, while Crown’s woman, Bess, is now living with Porgy in Catfish Row.  Got all that?  Also recall that Robbins’ widow, Serena, is working her fingers to the bone night and day, providing for her three children.  Serena has one ace in the deck, however:  She is on good terms with some influential white folks who are willing to help out with Old Peter’s case.  During slavery times Serena’s family used to belong to this particular white family, and now she is their maid.  They are actually decent people and try to help out where they can.  We’ll see later that these white folks help the Catfish Row folks to hire a lawyer, Mr. Archdale, who works some kind of magic behind the scenes with the assistance of a $10 bribe.  But first we have to meet a new, and very important, personage in this saga…

Enter the Sleazy Octoroon

The “octoroon”, Sportin’ Life appears out of nowhere in Maria’s cook show, just off the boat from New York City.  And determined to get lynched right out of the gate, apparently:

“Yuh sho got good-lookin’ white gals in dis town,” drawled a slender young octoroon.  He was attired in sky-blue, peg-top trousers, yellow spats, and in the centre of a scarlet bow-tie gleamed an immense paste horseshoe.

For those not in the know, an “octoroon” is a person with one-eighth African blood, and the other 7/8 European stock.  Not unlike Russia’s national poet, Alexander Pushkin!  I  knew that already, but I did have to google “peg-top trousers”, apparently they were the height of fashion in the 1920’s and 1930’s, especially among fashionable negro dandies, the waistband is higher than the actual waist (I think), and when cinched in tight it looks like the top of a peg.  (?)  Obviously, one has to be slender and fit to pull this off, otherwise it would just be a ferocious muffin-top.

“Hey dudes, check out my peg-top trousers!”

So, we know that our new octopus friend is a male fashion model.  We also learned, from the first words out of his mouth, that he likes white women and is used to dating them.

In the ensuing scene we learn something that we only just suspected before:  that Maria the cook is the undisputed leader of Catfish Row.  She is the one who sets, and enforces, the laws.  And one very important law is this:  Nobody will get lynched on her watch.  She needs to set the new guy straight, since he is clearly bringing risk to their community, with his loose talk about dating white women.  And in Maria’s intervention, we also see signs and portents of the writer, Heyward, defending his (white) community as well; making the point that Charleston is a civilized place, it’s not like barbaric Mississippi, there has never been a lynching here, and, if Maria has anything  to say about it, there never shall be!  Maria’s heavy tread shook the room as she crossed and stood, with arms akimbo, scowling down at her iridescent guest.  The man looked up, lowered his eyes quickly, and shifted uneasily in his chair.

“[N-word]!” she finally shot at him, and the impact almost jarred him from his chair.  “I jus’ tryin’ ter figger out wedder I bettuh kill yuh decent now, wid yuh frien’s about yuh; or leabe you fuh de w’ite gentlemens tuh hang attuh a while.”  [“I’m just trying to figure out if I should kill you decently now, with your friends about you; or leave you for the white gentlemen to hang after a while.”]

Sportin’ Life starts to protest, that back in New York City where he came from..

But Maria won’t let him get a word in edgewise.  In her ensuing tirade she informs that he is not in New York any more and that he better straighten up his act.  There has never been a lynching (yet) in this county, and she would not like to see him as the first, however much she might despise him and regards him as a complete rattlesnake.

While this interesting exchange is going on, a white man enters the courtyard, and all chatter ceases.  The protective curtain of silence which the negro draws about his life when the Caucasian intrudes hung almost tangibly in the air.  No one appeared to notice the visitor.  Each was busily preoccupied with his task.  Yet the new-comer made no move that was not noted by fifty pairs of inscrutable eyes.

This could have been Mr. Archdale in his office.

The white dude is looking for Porgy.  There is some ensuing slapstick comedy as one negro after another first deny they know any Porgy, until it is clarified that the man comes in peace and actually brings good news about Old Peter.  Then it’s like, “Oh, that Porgy!”

The white man is the attorney, Mr. Alan Archdale.  We shall see more of him in the story, but for now he is just involved in the project to get Old Peter out of jail.  But it is an interesting start to the future relationship between these two very different men.

In the dim light, Porgy leaned forward and looked long into the keen, kindly face of his questioner.  Archdale gave a surprised exclamation:  “Why, you’re the old man who used to beg in front of the apothecary shop on King Charles Street!” he said.  Then, after a moment of scrutiny:  “But you are not old, after all, are you?” and he studied the face intently.  There was a touch of grey in the wool above the ears, and strong character lines flared downward from the nose to corners of a mouth that was, at once, full-lipped and sensuous, yet set in a resolute line most unusual in a negro.  With the first indications of age upon it, the face seemed still alive with a youth that had been neither spent nor wasted.

[This exposition, and the ambiguity of Porgy’s age, is an important foreshadowing of the end of the story; when Porgy, once and for all, becomes “old”.]

Important note:  In the opera version, it is Crown rather than Sportin’ Life who takes up the “likes white woman” theme with his song about the Red-Headed Woman.  The Gershwin Brothers concatenated something like 10 different themes from the story, into this rousing song.  Either way, Maria would still be appalled, I reckon.

Next:  Old Peter returns and is made whole again.

[to be continued]

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Book Review: Porgy – Part VII

Where we left off in our recap:  Porgy has become more independent, now he has his goat cart to get around by himself:  “Porgy drove his chariot out through the wide entrance into a land of romance and adventure.”  His “chariot” drawn, not by a mythological steed, but by a smelly, flatulent old goat.

More independent now, more mobile, Porgy can pick and choose where to position himself in the big city; and nor does he have to just stay in one spot any more, waiting for Old Peter to come and collect him at the end of the day.  “It is impossible to conceive of a more radical change than that brought about in Porgy’s life by his new emancipation.”  The white folks laugh at him, passers-by hold their noses and point to the goat; and yet they toss more money into Porgy’s cup.  He and his goat have become a character in this tolerant old city.  Porgy can even take a break every now and then from his “job” and enjoy an hour or so just staring out at the harbor and watching the steamers dock.  Always a dreamer, Porgy dreams of the larger life out there, beyond his reach, and marvels at God’s “long arm”.

Phosphate miners in the Deep South

It’s June now, and the cotton season is over.  The last of the stevedores had departed, some to the plantations, others to the phosphate mines, and still others to the river barges.

Porgy is sitting in his doorway feeling lonely and depressed.  A large, matronly woman carrying a pail of water, pauses to chat with him.  “What de matter wid dis man, he ain’t gots nuttin’ to say?” she asked him kindly.  Porgy rudely (showing a new side of him) brushes her off:  “Lemme be, yuh done gots yuh own man.  Ain’t yuh?”

She responds to his rebuke with a cruel rebuke of her own:  “Oh, Lawd, yuh ain’t t’ink I wantin’ yuh, is yuh?”

Rubbing in the point that lonely Porgy (a) has no woman of his own, and (b) can’t get a woman, being a cripple and all…

And this scene sets the stage for what happens next.  We are 22% into the story (I know, ’cause I’m reading it on my Kindle), and we are about to meet Bess for the first time.  Those who know the story only from the operatic version need to understand that we have not, up to this point, seen Bess, nor even heard her name.  We know that Bess is destined to become Porgy’s woman, but we don’t yet know how, or why, this comes about.

Enter Bess

For those who were expecting a black glamor queen or a dazzling beauty like Dorothy Dandridge, please look again:

A Hollywood-glamorized version…

Through the early night a woman had lain in the dust against the outer wall of Maria’s cook-shop.  She was extremely drunk and unpleasant to look upon.  Exactly when she had dropped, or been dropped there, no one knew.  Porgy had not seen her when he had driven in at sunset.  But he had heard some talk of her among those who had entered later.  One of the men had come in laughing.  “I seen Crown’s Bess outside,” he said.  “Must be she come aroun’ tuh look for um.”

From an epistemological POV, this is extremely important information.  We learn that (a) Bess is Crown’s woman; and (b) she doesn’t know where her man is.  Recall that it’s been a couple of months since Crown went on the lam.  We see now that Bess has not been hiding out with him and doesn’t even know where he is, since she is searching for him (drunkenly) at Catfish Row.

Lit Crit Homework Assignment

In the phylogeny of African-American characters, especially as depicted by white authors, I might place Bess in the genealogical line of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Cassy:  a broken but still proud, even haughty, black woman, one who has suffered gross sexual abuse at the hands of men.  There is a difference, though, as we shall see later:  Cassy never consented to her own abuse.

Cassy as the strong but sexy black woman

I would say that Cassy is the model that Bess should have aspired to, had she been a stronger person.

Another difference, obviously, is that Cassy was the victim of her white slave-owner; whereas Bess finds abusers within her own race.  When we first meet her, Bess is drunk and high and beat up, we don’t know who did this to her and dumped her at the entrace to Catfish Row.  It obviously wasn’t Crown this time, but most likely somebody just as heinous.  American Lit majors, here is your homework:  Describe the similarities and differences between Cassy and Bess.

So, what does Bess look like?  Is she beautiful and glamorous, like Dorothy Dandrige?  It’s 10 o’clock at night, and Maria is getting ready to close her cook shop “when the tall, gaunt form of the woman lurched through the door into the faint illumination of the smoking lamp.  The visitor measured the distance to the nearest bench with wandering and vacant eyes, plunged for it, and collapsed, with head and arms thrown across a table.”

The woman is emaciated and has an ugly scar across her left cheek.  “The acid of utter degradation had etched hard lines about her mouth.”

Maria “went over, lifted the woman’s head, and looked into eyes in the far depths of which a human soul was flickering feebly.”  Readers, this is great writing!  For a second I thought I was reading Victor Hugo.

“Somethin’ tuh eat,” the woman whispered.  “Lemme hab somethin’ tuh eat, an’ I’ll go.”

What could possibly drive a human being to this depth?  The good-hearted Maria prepares a dinner and feeds the stranger, who gulps it down like a wolf.

Maria always lays down the law in Catfish Row

To prepare ourselves for what happens next, recall that Porgy is considered the least attractive, least desirable man, of all the men in Catfish Row.  In the previous scene, we just witnessed him being rudely dissed by one of the womenfolk:  “Who would want you?”  In other words, a woman would give herself to the likes of Porgy only if she was completely desperate and at the very end of her rope.  A woman who is drowning and reaches out for the last possible straw…

What follows next is some of the greatest writing I have ever read, and climaxes in a resolution so simple and perfect, that a person who didn’t already know the story, might never have guessed:

After wolfing down her food, Bess suddenly turns to her benefactress and asks:  “Who lib in dat room ‘cross de way?” [“Who lives in that room across the way?”]

“Porgy,” Maria replies.  “But such as yuh ain’t gots no use fuh he.  He a cripple, an’ a beggar.”  [“Such as you have no use for him.  He’s a cripple and a beggar.”]

“He de man wid goat?” [“He’s the man with the goat?”]

“Yes, he gots goat.” [“Yes, he has a goat.”]

The woman’s eyes narrowed to dark, unfathomable slits.  “I hyuh say he gits good money fum d w’ite folks.” [“I hear say he gets good money from the white folks.”]

In silence the meal was finished.  Then the woman steadied herself a moment with hands against a table, and, without a word to Maria, walked quickly, with an almost haughty carriage, from the room.  She crossed the narrow drive with a decisive tread, opened the door of Porgy’s room, entered, and closed the door behind her.

And, this my friends, is some of the greatest writing ever, not to mention a rather odd start to a classic love story!

Author Heyward is not a kiss-and-tell kind of guy:  He is silent and discreet as to what transpired that first night between Porgy and his new roommate.  All we know is that the following morning (at least, in the operatic version of the story) Porgy burst out of his room with a song on his lips.  The politically correct among us deride this song as a racist “Happy-go-lucky [n-word]” ballad, but it’s actually not.  It’s the song of a man who just got laid for the first time, and found that he really enjoyed it!

[to be continued]

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Happy Martin Luther King Day!

Dear Readers:

Happy Martin Luther King Day!  (I have to get to work early today and I don’t have time for my Porgy recap project, I’ll continue on with that in tomorrow’s post, but I just wanted to say a few words about the Big Guy, MLK.)

I find that most Americans respect MLK, but only because they are told to.  Americans, by and large, are a nation of sheep:  They believe what they are told to believe; this guy is a good guy; this one is a bad guy.  Certain countries are good, and certain countries are bad.  Some countries are so bad, that they have “regimes” and “we” have to go to war to topple those regimes, blah blah blah.  And most of the American public just nod and go along with this, they watch CNN or Fox News, then they repeat childish slogans and believe what the lamestream media tells them to believe.

In the case of MLK, when they mention what a great guy he was, the lamestream media is actually correct for once, but probably for the wrong reasons.  They have turned this man into a practically meaningless icon, like a black Santa Claus.  Most Americans don’t know about this man, who he really was, and what kind of evolution he underwent.  Evolving from a preacher-man in the Southern Black Christian milieu, then a cunning strategist for the Civil Rights movement; and then becoming the acknowledged leader of the entire African-American community (which doesn’t necessarily mean that all black people agreed with him, just that the majority of them accepted his leadership).

MLK’s genius was that he sussed into what he knew the vast majority of African-Americans wanted:  They didn’t want to go to Africa (as a certain “militant” wing of the movement prescribed); nor did they want to “kill whitey”, however satisfying that might feel for a few seconds; nor did they want to build an enclave (as certain other “black nationalists” insisted).  No, what they wanted was full integration into the American system and into American life.  MLK, a master politician, took this mass desire, he formulated it into an intelligent political platform (“I have a dream!”); and then he turned the notch even higher, to formulate a world-class worldview that attacked the foundations not just of racism, but of poverty itself, and economic equality.  Which  he saw as the roots of racism.

And then, towards the end, MLK started to evolve into a true statesman.  He connected the dots between the war in Vietnam, the Military-Industry Complex; and their connection to poverty and racism.  In his large and good-hearted brain, he saw the whole picture.  With a mass following, he was in a position to really start to change things.  He was trusted by all well-meaning people:  both black and white.  A born leader and a statesman, this man should, by all rights, have become the President of the United States.

Instead, he was murdered.  And the world has been a much worse place ever since.

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Book Review: Porgy – Part VI

Where we left off in our recap, we saw Porgy’s best friend, Old Peter, hauled away by the cops, for indefinite detension as a “material witness” in the Robbins murder case.  From that, we learned that the American prison system was just as unfair then as it is today, and unfairly directed against the working poor, especially if they happened to be negroes.

“The Great Emancipator” – chromo print on Old Peter’s wall

We learn the price that Old Peter paid for his one mistake in talking to the cops:  Ten days go by, and the old man has disappeared into the maw of the prison system.  His horse and wagon (which he only had on lease, at exorbitantly usurious rates) have been repossessed.  Next his furniture is repo’d.  Before the “Teutonic” repo guy came, Porgy was able to rescue just a couple of items from his friend’s room:  a battered leather trunk, a bundle of old clothes, and a chromo of “The Great Emancipator”, “mute reminders of their kindly and gentle old owner.”  With those words, Heyward ends Part I of his masterpiece.  By the way, I had to look up the word chromo, it was kind of a colored print that was popular around this time, a means of mass marketing reproductions of photographs or paintings.  A complex technology and fascinating topic, in its own right.

Multiple Chekhov Rifles On The Wall

It’s the month of May now, the languor of summertime is in the air, the livin’ is gettin’ easier, and — Chekhov’s Rifle Alert! — Heyward shows us some swaggering black stevedores.  In this slack season putting in only two or three days of work a week, these hulking giants bask in the courtyard, “laughing and telling stories” while they wait for their women to return from their maid duties in the white folks kitchens.  “Under their blue cotton shirts moved broad, flat backs that could heft a five hundred pound cotton bale.”  The stevedores are the upper caste within the lower caste:  They make more money, and they can simply take whatever women they want, “dressing them gorgeously in the clashing crimsons and purples that they loved.”  Lordy, methinks that Heyward is prepping us for the appearance of Bess!  When we meet her, will she be a fine lady dressed in crimson and purple, a hip-waggling arm-candy to some hulking stevedore?

“Summertime, and the livin’s easy… lalalala”

“At the wharf, across the narrow street, the fishermen were discharging strings of gleaming whiting and porgy.”  Note:  this is the first time we read the word “porgy” when it’s not our guy, Porgy.  Recall that a porgy is a species of bream fish.  One speculates that Porgy got his name (or nickname) from the fish.  No explanation why he has no last name.  Anyhow, the wharf scene reminds us that there is an ultimate escape route from Catfish Row.  For those needing, or desiring, to escape.

And then, bang bang, another Chekhov Rifle:  “Through the back door of the cook-shop Maria, the huge proprietress, could be seen cutting shark-steaks from a four-foot hammer-head that one of the fishermen had given her.”  Much later in the story, we will see how Maria uses this same technique (of cutting up a shark) to help cover up a second murder!

The Compleat Porgy

In this idyllic time in the lives of these people, with the geraniums blooming on every window sill, Porgy feels only sadness and loneliness.  He has lost his only friend, Old Peter, and nobody else is paying much attention to him.  “He missed his old friend keenly and could not enter into the light-hearted life about him.”  More to the point, Porgy cannot earn a living without some means of transport to the city center.  As the days go by, counting his ever-dwindling supply of pennies (which he hoards under a loose brick in his floorboard), Porgy must come to a decision, what to do?  How is he going to survive?

Goat carts were a real thing, in those days.

A chance conversation in the courtyard with the widow, Serena Robbins, turns the tide for him.  Serena, who had “put her grief aside” and gotten busy earning a living for her three children, is a very religious woman.  She believes that “Jesus will provide”, and that things will turn out okay.

In the conversation with Serena, Porgy allows himself some self-pity, complaining about his useless legs and comparing himself to the stevedores, whom God endowed with every physical perfection.  “Pray, Brudder, pray,” the widow urges him.  “Gawd got leg fuh de cripple.”

Porgy wakes up in the middle of the night with a sudden idea, he has figured out how to fix his problem.  No doubt Jesus telepathically gave him the answer.  And it turns out that our hero is more resourceful than any of us thought:  Using his last remaining money, he purchases the wherewithal to build himself a cart from a packing case that used to hold toilet soap.  And also buys a goat to pull that cart. And with this gear, Porgy can now drive himself to work, thus becoming the character whom DuBose Heyward had encountered, a real person, on the streets of Charleston:  A negro male of indeterminate age, a street beggar, driving a makeshift cart pulled by a smelly and flatulent old goat!

[to be continued]

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Book Review: Porgy – Part V

Dear Readers:

It disturbs me a bit when I see some of the hype surrounding the Gershwin production, and “Porgy and Bess” described with the word “inspirational“.  Inspirational?  Really?Just because a work of art features African Americans, that doesn’t necessarily make it inspirational.  Martin Luther King was inspirational.  Is Porgy inspirational?  And makes me wonder if Heyward’s gritty story should not have been worked over by the likes of an Alban Berg (“Lulu”, “Wozzeck”) instead of Mr. Nice Guy Gershwin Brothers.  Who softened the source material somewhat, yet still had no intention of portraying these characters as role models or national leaders!

Porgy’s Personality A Function Of His Class and Economic Circumstances

“What is he waiting for?” the child asked her mother, pointing to the crippled street beggar as they passed by, hopefully dropping a coin into Porgy’s cup.

The answer is:  Life.  Porgy was waiting for some semblance of a life.  We learned about him, that he spends hour after hour, every day, sitting on that street corner, with an inscrutable look on his face, and radiating a sense of “infinite patience”.  Returning to his room at the Catfish Row tenement, he spends additional hours after hours at his front window, staring at the harbor and imagining the “life out there”, somewhere, where there is a life.  He watches for every sign of life:  the carriages clomping by on the street, the barges sailing by on the water.  People with things to do, and places to go.  He does not have any of those things.

Any other man might take to drink.  But Porgy does not drink.  He does not smoke.  He does not use cocaine.  His sole vice, the one thing that makes him feel alive, is gambling.  Which he does every night in the courtyard of Catfish Row.  Tossing the dice and experiencing that fleeting sense of being alive.

Any other man would become a compulsive gambler, and quickly fall to ruin.  But not Porgy.  Here again, he is saved by his own personality trait, that of infinite patience.  He is not compulsive, nor impulsive.  Leaving enough money for rent and food, he sets aside a certain amount every night for his vice, and if he should lose it, he knows to just walk away.  Even if he lost it in the first five minutes, he would still walk away.  Knowing that there is always tomorrow night.  And that, my friends, is the sign of a man who knows himself, and knows how to control his own vice.  Like his friend, Robbins, who is a good provider for his family, and only drinks and gambles on Saturday evenings.

When the villain Crown killed Robbins and really set the story in motion, we learned one more thing about Porgy:  That he is a community man and good citizen of his community.  After just a moment’s hesitation, he sacrificed a significant portion of his earnings to help the widow buy a coffin.  That shows generosity and an empathy for others, also very positive traits in a man’s personality.

As one can clearly see, we are learning about Porgy from a sociological, even perhaps quasi-Marxist methodology:  We are not invited into his “inscrutable” head, but we learn about him by seeing him in interaction with other people.  But so far it has just been his own people, his own community.  We still have to see how he deals with the larger world and the main force in that larger world:  the white man.

Here Come Da Boss

For sure, Catfish Row is no stranger to the police.  Not long after Robbins’ funeral procession scene (another opportunity for Heyward to insert some examples of Negro spirituals and other songs, of which he had apparently collected quite a few over the years), the guardians of law and order show up at the tenement to investigate the murder.  As well they ought to.

It’s early afternoon of the day of the funeral.  Porgy and his friend Old Peter (the two eyewitnesses to the murder) are sitting on the stoop and talking about it.  Porgy speculates that Crown might be hiding out on Kittiwar Island, lying low in a palmetto thicket (Bingo, Porgy!  also Chekhov Rifle Alert! — that’s exactly where Crown is hiding.)

A helpful Southern cop, circa 1927

And then suddenly a white man walks into the court.  He is described as stocky, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and goatee, and swinging a heavy cane.  Perhaps Colonel Sanders bringing a bucket of fried chicken for the hungry residents?  Oh no!  He suddenly flashes a gun and badge.  This cop knows how to scare a suspect:  Turning directly to Old Peter and snarls at him:  “You killed Robbins, and I’m going to hang you for it.  Come along now!”  Laying a firm hand on the old man’s shoulder.  “Fore Gawd, Boss, I ain’t nebber done it.”  Acting not unlike modern police, Colonel Sanders whips his revolver out of its holster and points it directly between the old guy’s eyes.  “Who did it, then?” he demands.

The intimidation works, and a terrified Peter instantly forgets everything he used to know about how to deal with the police; and the all-important No-Snitch rule  of Catfish Row.  In his terror, he spills the beans:  “Crown, Boss.  I done see him do ‘um,” Peter cried in utter panic.

A fatal mistake, as we shall see.  There is a reason for the No-Snitch rule in Catfish Row, and it’s not necessarily to abet the criminals:  Much as they might want Crown to pay for his crime, our heroes cannot trust the PO-lice any further than they can throw them.  The cop now has what he needs to detain and hold Old Peter indefintely as a material witness.  The cop turns to Porgy:  “You saw it too, eh?”

Does South Carolina still suffer from a “confederacy of the mind” ?

Fortunately, our titular hero is too smart to fall for that old gag.  He does not repeat Peter’s mistake:

There was panic in Porgy’s face, and in his lap his hands had clinched upon each other.  But his eyes were fixed upon the paving.  He drew a deep breath, and waited.

A flare of anger swept the face above him.  “Come.  Out with it.  I don’t want to have to put the law on you.”

Porgy’s only answer was a slight tremor that shook the hands in his lap.  The detective’s face darkened, and sweat showed under his hat-brim.  Suddenly his temper bolted.

“Look at me, you damned [n-word]!” he shouted.

And now watch for the crucial moment in this crisis, which reveals the final piece of the puzzle in Porgy’s complex personality, namely a deeply-hidden ember of self-worth and dignity:

Slowly the sitting figure before him relaxed, almost it seemed, muscle by muscle.  At last the hands fell apart, and lay flexed and idle.  Finally Porgy raised eyes that had become hard and impenetrable as onyx.  They met the angry glare that beat down upon them without flinching.  After a long moment, he spoke slowly, and with great quietness.

“I ain’t know nuttin’ bout um.  I been inside, asleep on my bed, wid de do’ closed.”

Colonel Sanders investigates the murder.

And with that, Porgy accomplishes three things:  (1) he saves himself from being hauled in as a material witness, (2) he makes the cop back off, and (3) almost single-handedly starts the Civil Rights movement.

Well, I made (3) up, but still I challenge anybody to read that passage and not get a chill down his or her spine.  For a second I thought I was reading Victor Hugo.  And we are definitely on Porgy’s side, from this moment on!

Come to think of it, maybe Porgy is an inspirational figure after all.  I mean how he stood that white cop down, and with a gun pointing right in his face!  One must be thankful they didn’t have tasers in those days.

Next:  How Porgy has to cope with losing his transportation system.

[to be continued]

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Book Review: Porgy – Part IV

When we the readers first meet Porgy, he is just a street beggar.  We know that he is important, because he is the titular character of this story.  But we don’t know what kind of man he is.  He is described as having a “mystic” or inscrutable attitude.  A man of infinite patience and (we are starting to think), infinite cunning.  As the little child asks the question, pointing at the street beggar:  “Mommy, what is he waiting for?”  We don’t know.  We don’t know much about him yet, is he a good person?  A bad person?  Probably bad.  Beggars are bad people.  Even with his useless legs, he could have tried to find some kind of legitimate job using his hands.

And then we come to find out that he is also a gambler — we are starting to despise him!  What kind of man begs for money, and then spends it on dice?  Well, to be sure he is a careful gambler, not a compulsive one:  “Porgy had but one vice.  With his day reduced to the dead level of the commonplace, he was by night an inveterate gambler.  Each evening his collections were carefully divided into a minimum for room and food, and the remainder for the evening’s game.”

Negro stevedores circa 1855

In the courtyard of Catfish Row, Porgy gambles against the working men who earned their pay more honestly than himself:  the stevedores, the hulking men who “tote the bales” of cotton, the fishermen, the laborers from the fertilizer mills.

Porgy is a pretty good player, and luck seems to visit him more often than not.  More importantly, gambling is the one thing that makes him light up and feel like he is actually alive:  “In those hours he lost his look of living in the future.  While the ivories flew, he existed in an intense and burning present.”

The First Crisis

We are barely 10 pages into the book, and then a Murder!  It involves gambling, of course.  Nature presages the crisis, with thunder clouds and a hint of a storm.  It’s a Saturday night in late April, normally a sociable time in Catfish Row, with chatter and singing out in the courtyard.  But for some reason everybody is on edge, and people are staying in their rooms.  Only 4 men are still out on the courtyard.  These men consist of:  (1)  the murder victim, Robbins; (2) the perp, Crown; and two eye-witnesses (3) Porgy, and (4) Old Peter.  The first three of which are gambling, and Old Peter is just watching.

Queequeg

This is the moment where we meet the villain of this story, Crown.  We meet him just in time to see him viciously kill another man.  Crown “was a stevedore, had the body of a gladiator, and a bad name.”  He carries his cotton-hook always with him on his belt.  (Perhaps a literary reference to Melville’s Queequeg, with his harpoon?  Both men being dark and exotic killers, with the difference that Queequeg can be a nice guy, sometimes.  Well, there is a possible dissertation topic for lit majors:  Compare Crown to Queequeg.)

Here we also meet Robbins, another participant in this fatal game.  Our acquaintanceship with Robbins is short-lasting, we meet him for barely a few seconds, then he is murdered:  “Robbins was voluble, and as usual, when in liquor, talked incessantly of his wife and children, of whom he was inordinately proud.  He was a good provider, and, except for his Saturday night drink and game, of steady habits.”

And that’s pretty much all that we need to know about Mr. Robbins; those two short sentences brilliantly set out all the exposition we need for a whole series of events to come.  Namely, what will happen to his widow and orphaned children?  How will Catfish Row cope with this loss?  How will the murderer escape, and where will he go to hide out?

Violence is an unacceptable way to resolve disputes.

Before being slaughtered by Crown in this gambling dispute, Robbins manages to drop an important expositionary nugget about his wife, Serena:  She is  a very proud and proper woman, a “born white-folks [n-word]” who is still friends with Miss Rutledge, the wife of the Governor, and the family that her family used to belong to.  As we later come to know Serena better, we shall also see her religious fervor and her disdain for the likes of Bess, which sets up an important future conflict when the two women fight over a baby.

And so we have the three men gambling:  Porgy, Crown and Robbins.  A fourth man, to-be eye witness to the murder, is Old Peter, the wagoner, sitting and smoking in Porgy’s doorway while “indulgently” watching the antics of the gamblers.

“Then, in a flash, it happened.”  Robbins wins a throw, Crown disputes the win, Crown attacks Robbins, they fight, Crown slashes the other man with his cotton-hook.  “Robbins was dead:  horribly dead.”

How does our hero respond?  “Porgy shivered violently, whimpered in the gloom, then drew himself across his threshold and closed the door.”

The Saucer Wake

Up until now we only had a glimpse of the outside world, and it never occurred to us that Catfish Row, being a tenement of outcasts, might be held accountable to the higher authorities who run the city.  In due course we shall meet the police detective investigating the murder.  A mean guy and a white racist, but also a rather good cop, whose professional hunches are correct more often than not.  But first we have to get through a crucial scene which shall help us make up our mind about Porgy:  good guy or bad guy?  We know that he begs for a living, and that he gambles, but he is a careful, and not an impulsive, gambler.  In the final analysis, one’s opinion about others sometimes hinges on the way they handle money.  Very few people are fond of misers, or of those who are considered ungenerous, or selfish. And here Porgy comes up against a crucial test of his character.

A Negro funeral in the Deep South

See, it turns out that Robbins had left no burial insurance.  His widow, Serena, is forced to swallow her pride and hold what the local negroes call a “saucer” wake.  This consists of laying the man’s body out on the bed, with a saucer for donations.  All night long the relatives sing dirges and “negro spirituals” such as “Oh, I gots a little brudder in de new grabe-yahd…” until they can collect enough money to pay for a proper burial.  And this being the deep South, the burial ceremony must include a carriage, a hearse, and a coffin, not to mention the standard street procession with everybody dressed in their Sunday finest.  Serena needs to raise a minimum of $20 to pay the mulatto undertaker, but it’s not looking good.  The mulatto keeps popping in to ask how much they raised so far, “How de saucer stan’ now, my sister?”  Serena replies despairingly that they have only raised $15 so far, and that’s not enough.  The stakes are high:  If she cannot raise enough money for a funeral, then she might be forced to hand the body over to the Board of Health, who will in turn hand it over to the medical students, for dissecting and experimentation.  Serena is almost going mad and cannot bear that thought.

In this moment of crisis, Porgy has to make a decision.  He has just returned from “work” and counts his day’s collection:  one dollar and twenty cents.  “It had been a good day.”  As he always does, Porgy divides his take into equal portions:  one for rent and food; the other for gambling.

And then, swayed by the chanting and dirges he hears in the next room, “he hesitated a moment,” and then made his decision.  Porgy gathered his money together again, took out a 25-cent piece for himself, and then brought the rest of it next door, into the room of mourning, to place into the saucer.  Okay, so if you do the math, Porgy put 95 cents into the saucer.  Certainly not enough to swing the deal (in the end, Serena convinces the mulatto to take the rest on credit; and so she gets her big funeral after all), but the important point here is this:  Porgy did the right thing.  He chose somebody else over himself.  He showed compassion for the needs of another person.  He showed solidarity with his community.  Porgy is a decent man, we know that now.

Next:  Maria’s No-Snitch Rule, or How Porgy deals with the PO-lice…

[to be continued]

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Book Review: Porgy – Part III

Porgy the Man

Recall that Heyward’s novel is called simply “Porgy”, not “Porgy and Bess”.  There is a reason for that, and also a reason why the operatic version changed the title, in reworking the source material to be more “operatic”, i.e., stressing the romantic side of Porgy’s nature and the all-important relationship of his life.  But that is to come later.  Before Bess ever enters the picture, Heyward is to unpeel Porgy, layer by layer, until we know the man like we know ourselves.

“Porgy lived in the Golden Age.”  That is how the author begins his story.  The very first word as we enter this world is “Porgy“.

When we first meet the man, we know only one thing about him:  He is a street beggar.  Instantly we have a negative attitude towards him.  Heyward goes on to explain his assertion about the Golden Age:  This is the golden age of beggary, in the great city of Charleston, South Carolina.  And it’s not the same as, say, beggary in Dickensian London.  Here, in this genteel Southern city, street beggary is more of an art form, and Porgy is an artist of this medium:  “For, as the artist is born with the vision of beauty, and the tradesman with an eye for barter, so was Porgy equipped by a beneficent providence for a career of mendicancy.”  We dislike the man more and more…

Until we learn, in the very next sentence, that his handicap is legit:  He was born with shrivelled legs.  He is a genuine cripple.  Recall that the author himself suffered from polio and we start to feel some empathy.

Porgy’s “workplace” – the streets of downtown Charleston

A conscientious “worker” in his own way, Porgy shows up to his “job” every morning promptly.  His usual patch is the financial district, at the corner of King Charles Street and The Meeting House Road.

Aside from his useless legs, Porgy is strong as a bull.  We shall learn later, just around the time we need to know it, that he has tremendous upper-arm strength.  As one might expect from a man who has to push himself around with his arms a lot.

Next we learn something about Porgy’s personality:  There is a certain je ne sais quoi about him which attracts attention and even sympathy, though he himself is neither gregarious nor particularly likable:  “Either by birth, or through the application of a philosophy of life, he had acquired a personality that could not be ignored, one which at the same time interested and subtly disturbed.”  While the other beggars “bid for attention”, curry favor with the passers-by and offer obsequious gratitude, Porgy just sits silent, “rapt”, and barely even expresses appreciation for the donations:  “He never smiled, and he acknowledged gifts only by a low lifting of the eyes that had odd shadows in them.”   There is something “Eastern and mystic” about him that sets him apart from the usual street negroes, and this is the secret of his success.  The donor who drops a coin in this man’s cup “carried away in return a very definite, yet somewhat disquieting, impression:  a sense of infinite patience, and beneath it the vibration of unrealized, but terrific, energy.”

Sidney Poitier portrayed Porgy in the movie version.

In other words, Porgy is an example of the “Magical Negro” of American lore!  (According to some literary experts, Heyward based Porgy’s character on a real person that he had encountered, a well-known denizen of the Charleston streets.)

At this point we, the readers, don’t even know what to think:  We want to like Porgy, but we find him just a little bit scary.  Heyward describes Porgy physically as very black:  “the almost purple blackness of unadulterated Congo blood.”  He has large muscular hands [Chekhov Rifle Alert!]  Nobody knows how old he is, although there are people who remember him sitting in that exact same spot 20 years ago.  He is essentially ageless.  (Until the end of the story.)

Next:  We delve into Porgy’s living arrangements.  For starters, how does he transport himself to and from his workplace?  The answer is:  His friend, Peter.  Always referred to as “Old Peter”.  Old Peter owns (or rather, leases, as we shall learn) a rickety wagon and old horse attached.  With these, he acts as Porgy’s handcap van of that era.

Porgy’s Room

Porgy’s “job” provides him with enough money to pay rent, buy food, and other necessities.  Both Porgy and his friend Old Peter are residents of the block of flats known as Catfish Row.  Which, as we saw, is not such a bad place after all, being a retired old mansion, and certainly much nicer than the disgusting shanty town as was portrayed in the movie version.

As one enters Catfish Row from the street side, one quickly encounters the “cook shop”, ruled by the cook Maria, a formidable woman whom we shall come to know much better, later in the story.  A stock type of the big, strong black woman, Maria is the de facto leader of Catfish Row:  She both makes and enforces the rules.  In her other job, as cook, Maria provides grub to all the residents of the tenement.  Day and night, she chops up and fries any and all kinds of fish, and displays her wares in the window.  (And charges very reasonable prices, too.)

Funny Sidebar:  Just by chance, yesterday, as I was driving to work, I happened to hear on my car radio an interview with one of the stars of the Metropolitan Opera staging of this new production.  Apparently the opera is such a success that the Met has been forced to add on additional performances for all those seeking tickets.  Fortunately, I already have my ticket, but it’s for the February 1 Live in HD transmission.  Anyhow, the interview was with Denyce Graves, the mezzo-soprano who sings Maria.  Denyce told the interviewer that during rehearsals she would take “orders” from members of the cast, while preparing her cook-shop.  They would laughingly order exotic dishes like shrimp and beluga caviar!  The interview ended with a clip of Graves singing her duet with Sportin’ Life, in which she “explains” to the drug dealer why they can never be friends, so he can “take his slinky ass” out of her cook-shop.  If you read the novel, you’ll see later what Maria actually says to Sportin’ Life, and the words she actually uses, which are WAY stronger than what is in the song – LOL!

But back to Porgy, and we find that he has a really great room, possibly the best one in the tenement:  It’s on the first floor, close to the entrance and conveniently just opposite Maria’s shop.  His room has a front window with a great view of the street and harbour; AND also an inner door that opens onto the courtyard.  Here, in this courtyard doorway, he can sit and participate in the social life of the community.  “To him, the front window signified adventure, the door – home.”

This being 1927, Heyward makes no mention of human bodily functions.  It’s clear the tenement has no electricity or running water (the residents bring their water in buckets), and I think we can assume there are no indoor toilets.  Where the residents go to “go” is left a mystery.  Also a mystery is where the animals are sheltered:  We know that Old Peter has a horse, and later on Porgy will purchase a goat.  Presumably there is some type of stable on the grounds.

This, then, is the foundation of Porgy’s social support system:  Old Peter is his transportation to and from work.  From Maria he can purchase his daily grub.  Within his cozy room he can look out the window and see the “adventurous” life of the harbour.  Or, he can sit in his doorway and participate in the social life of Catfish Row.  These are his people:  Here he is loved and appreciated.

Porgy has but one vice:  He is a gambler….

[to be continued]

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