Book Review: Porgy – Part XV

Dear Readers:

It is time to conclude my review of this amazing book.  For sure, we are only 59% through it (according to my Kindle), but with everything set up properly and brilliantly (by Heyward), it is possible to just skip through the rest of the recap, only touching on the main points.  I have often maintained that every great novel (or short story, or play, for that matter) is basically an enhanced joke, leading to a punchline that provides release, if not catharsis.  Moby Dick, for example, is like a 500-page setup to a joke, whose punchline is that final image of the floating coffin.  Similarly, Porgy leads us, and sets us up, for that final image of the broken old man.  Who lost his one chance for true happiness, due to the plottings of a malevolent clockwork God.

Or, no.  It is not God who is malevolent.  God even gives Bess one final, undeserved chance, when he places that baby in her arms and practically orders her to domesticate herself and get her sh*t together.  But no.  It is nature who is malevolent.  Nature, who is so cruel to man, and brings so much grief and destruction.  We have no idea why Bess is the way she is.  We know nothing about her, where she came from, even her last name.  We can deduce that she did not come from a happy family; was most likely sexually abused as a child.  Possibly — judging by her behavior — even by her father.  Why do people treat each other this way?  We are all captives of nature, this horrendous force that dooms us to suffer and die.  Why can’t we humans just try to be kind to one another while passing our time together in this hellhole that they call life?

Porgy’s Dilemma

So anyhow, the Catfish Row folks return home from the picnic in a sombre mood.  Porgy and Bess aren’t speaking to each other.  Nothing has been said about what happened, but Porgy doesn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that Bess spent the afternoon with Crown.  We saw that Crown, after raping Bess, issued his marching orders to her:  She could return to Porgy, but only for a while; until the cotton comes.  Then he will come for her, they will escape together, stowing away on the river boat to Savannah.

Eventually Bess tells Porgy what the deal is.  Porgy now has some thinking and planning to do, before Crown returns to take Bess.  He has to mull over his options.  Does he actually have any options?  Bess has told him, clear as day, that she has no will power, and that she will go away with Crown unless something is done to remove him (Crown) from the picture.

There is a scene here between the two which stands out for me, because I think it is the only piece of bad writing in this whole work.  I wish I could go back in time, grab Heyward, and force him to fix this paragraph:

When you hang that rifle on the wall, be sure it’s not crooked!

After a while the woman [Bess] reached out a hand and closed it lightly about the man’s [Porgy’s] arm.  Under the sleeve she felt the muscles go rigid.  What power!  She tried to circle it with her hand.  It was almost as big as Crown’s.  It was strange that she had not noticed that before.  She opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came.  Presently she sighed, and withdrew her hand.

This is a poorly-designed Chekhov Rifle Alert, in my opinion.  Despite months of living together and (presumably) making love, Bess has never noticed Porgy’s massive arms?  Come on!  Heyward needed to establish that Porgy has the required upper-body strength to murder Crown, once we get to that murder scene.  But he could have done this is a less clumsy way, in my humble opinion as a literary reviewer.

But no matter, let us keep skipping forward.

As the stagehands are setting up for the big murder scene, we see a conversation between Maria and Serena Robbins, as they discuss the sitrep.  Recall that Serena’s hubby was murdered by Crown.  The two women suspect that Crown will return to Catfish Row to collect Bess.  And Serena also has to mull over her options, how she will behave in this impending crisis.  Turning him over to the police is not an option, due to the No-Snitch policy.  Serena’s only other option is to kill Crown herself.  And another thing to worry about:  If some other resident should kill Crown, then Serena may still be arrested, as the logical suspect, even if she didn’t do it!  “[N-word] sho’ gots fuh keep he eye open in dis worl’,” Maria muses philosophically.  [“An n-word sure has to keep his eyes open in this world.”]

So, we are setting up to solve a huge problem affecting everybody in Catfish Row:  How to kill Crown without getting anybody in trouble?  If this were Agatha Christie, then probably ALL the residents would join together to kill Crown.  In a way they sort of do, or at least all join together to cover it up after the fact, as we shall see.

Maria Banishes The Serpent

Next follows a scene with a certain humorous potential, as Maria confronts the drug dealer Sportin’ Life, beats him up, clocks him on the head with a brick, physically tosses him out the front door, and banishes him, once and for all, from Catfish Row.  (This scene in the opera version is usually played for laughs.)  Now, if only Crown were so easy to deal with, as the puny mulatto.

The Storm

Next we have the storm at sea, which wipes out half the menfolk of Catfish Row.  Who, greedy for more catch, ignored the prognostications of the weather man and sailed out to sea in their small Mosquito Fleet, led by Jake.  This scene of the storm and ensuing tsunami is some of the greatest writing in the English language; and yet I must skate over it like Hans Brinker on amphetamines.  Only noting, once again, that Heyward’s Nature is nothing like Melville’s Nature.  Melville’s Nature is wild, and free, and primitive, yet strangely innocent, in its destructiveness. Heyward’s Nature is a cold, heartless clockwork mechanism, whose purpose is to, maliciously and systematically, wipe out mankind.  Starting with Jake and the other fishermen.

There was something utterly terrifying about the studied manner in which the hurricane proceeded about its business.  It clicked off its moves like an automaton.  It was Destiny working nakedly for the eyes of men to see.

In an equally horrendous scene, Jake’s widow, Clara, is also lost to the tsunami, but not before handing her baby over to Bess for safe keeping.

Water, that brings life, can also destroy life.

This baby, who is a key figure in the opera (although he doesn’t have many singing lines) appears rather later in the source story.  But still plays a key role.  He represents Bess’ last, very last chance at domesticity; and also brings out the maternal/paternal side of Porgy.  Raising this orphan together, can they become a true family at last and have their own Hallmark Special?  Er, no…

Somehow, by a  miracle, the remaining residents of Catfish Row survive the tsunami and flood, by climbing up to the second storey of the tenement and crouching in the great ball-room of the old mansion.  They save themselves, including the babies and the animals, without any assistance from FEMA.

Bess turned from the window holding the sleeping infant in her arms, raised her eyes and looked full at Porgy.  With an expression of awe in his face, the cripple reached out a timid hand and touched the baby’s cheek.

Killing Crown

Long story short:  Barely have the residents gotten over this natural disaster when Crown returns for Bess, as he had promised.  Porgy really has no choice but to kill Crown, in order to protect his family.  Bess more or less even forces him to do it:  She tells Porgy that she is so weak, she will not be able to resist Crown, and will go with him, unless something is done.

“Ef dey warn’t no Crown?” Porgy whispered.  Then before she could answer, he hurried on:  “Ef dey wuz only jes’ de baby an’ Porgy, wut den?” [“If there were no Crown?  If there were only just the baby and Porgy, what then?”]

The odd incandescence flared in her face, touching it with something eternal and beautiful beyond the power of human flesh to convey.  She took the child from Porgy with a hungry, enfolding gesture.  Then her composure broke.  “Oh, fuh Gawd sake, Porgy, don’t let dat man come an’ handle me!  Ef yuh is willin’ tuh keep me, den lemme stay.  Ef he jus’ don’t put dem hot han’ on me, I kin be good, I kin ‘member, I kin be happy.” [“Oh for God’s sake, Porgy, don’t let that man come and handle me!  If you are willing to keep me, then let me stay.  If he just doesn’t put that hot hand on me, I can be good, I can remember, I can be happy.”]

At that moment, Crown’s fate is sealed.  Porgy will do what a man has to do:  he will step up to the plate, save Bess and his family.  So that night, when Crown breaks into his room, Porgy is waiting for him.  Using his previously-mentioned upper-body strength, Porgy manages to subdue Crown and stab him to death with a knife.

Appropriately enough, Maria uses shark blood to cover up Crown’s blood.

After the murder, all of Catfish Row, led by Maria, bustle about helping to cover up the crime.  They toss Crown’s body out on the street and clean up all the blood in Porgy’s room.  When the police detective arrives, he thinks he is onto something at first, when they see a pool of blood in Maria’s kitchen.  (Hint:  they had dragged the body out this way.)  But Maria is too clever for them:  The cops find Maria busy chopping up a shark.  In those days, before DNA, they would not have been able to distinguish between human and shark blood — very clever, Maria!

And thus, Porgy totally gets away with murder — but wait!   There is a horrifying touch.  Creeping around at night, and with her ear to Porgy’s door, Maria partially overhears the actual murder take place.  Then came a sound that caused her flesh to prickle with primal terror.  It was so unexpected, there in the chill, silent night.  It was Porgy’s laugh, but different.  Out of the stillness it swelled suddenly, deep, aboriginal, lustful….

And this is Porgy’s fall from grace.  We don’t blame him for killing Crown — he pretty much to do that, to save his family.  But that laugh?  Porgy actually enjoyed killing Crown!

And that, my friends, was the long-awaited punchline to this whole joke.  That eerie, horrific laughter, of a man who finally has his chance to get even with the world!

The rest of the story is just a coda to that grizzly laughter.  Porgy totally gets away with the murder, from a judicial point of view — the coppers can’t prove anything against him — but almost gives himself away by his own superstitions, and his fear of Crown’s ghost.  He is off his game.  When the police ask him to come in and make a statement, he panics and tries to flee, in his goat-cart.  Leading to a bit of comic black Minstrelry — for which Heyward actually apologizes to his readers — in which the Keystone Cops in their horse and buggy chase Porgy in his goat-cart, in the 1920’s version of the Big O.J. Chase scene.

As a result of which comedy, comes time for Porgy to serve his 10 days in the slammer.  Not for murder, but for obstructing justice.  And while he is away, Bess leaves him. Crown may be dead, but there are other brutes out there who are just like Crown.  Including that animal she once knocked into the harbor.  They come to her, give her dope, and take her away on a boat to Savannah.  Pretty much the same plan that Crown had for her.

Porgy returns to an empty home.  (Don’t worry about the baby:  Serena adopts him.)  Porgy returns an old and broken man. Like the malicious clockwork automata that they are, God and Nature have destroyed this essentially good man.  Who was brought to the point where he killed another man, and then laughed his head off.


P.S. as baritone Eric Owens (Porgy) noted, this work is a “true piece of Americana”. So, don’t listen to the detractors: READ THIS BOOK. Does it really matter that it was written by a white guy, about black people?  Are we really that shallow nowadays?  As soprano Angel Blue (Bess) noted in a radio interview:  Every true work of art is like the artist’s gift to the world. And Porgy be a true work of art, which is why it continues to live on!

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