When Ben Metcalf’s first novel, Against the Country, was published in January of this year, it drew scant attention from the world we designate “literary,” and none from the marketplace of what we call ideas. But another look reveals that Metcalf seems guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of sentences written with intent—sentences of extraordinary interest and beauty, originality and art, drama and delight.
When I first opened Stanford’s slim book of posthumously published selected work, The Light the Dead See, every word rang true and glowed like burning coal. I was enraptured by his recklessness, his rebelliousness, his loneliness; I drank up his language like whiskey and was pulled into his dangerous, nocturnal world full of energy and eroticism and death.
He was a modernist scholar, one of the earliest, and for decades a leading translator of ancient Greek poetry; but he also wrote with authority on the social history of the pear, Mother Ann Lee and Shaker aesthetics, Dogon cosmogony, the anthropology of table manners, 2 Timothy and the Pauline doctrine, Louis Agassiz, Eudora Welty, geodesic domes, the paintings of Balthus, and the behavior of wasps—which he fed in his home from a saucer of sugar water. He himself subsisted on fried bologna sandwiches and Marlboros.
What was the year? 1986? 2008? Does it matter? What was the great offense? Same as last time, more or less. Some white shit. What was the reaction? One Negro leader or another—fill in the blank—stood in front of the cameras and declared we would do such things he knew not what! This said with a walls will come tumbling down certainty, same as last time, more or less.
Cooking with Chris.
Though not inclined to the supernatural, I am willing to recognize the effects of luck on my life, both good and bad. As a result I have many talismans of good fortune: a rabbit’s foot, a horseshoe, an oak leaf from a 150-year-old tree, and hundreds of lucky rocks. I don’t know if they work, and I don’t really care.
In Fred Hobson’s Tell About the South, he writes of a well-to-do white writer named Lillian Smith, born in Jasper, Florida, a mere eighty miles from my home in the hills of Leon County. I had never heard of her. Unlike her contemporaries W. J. Cash, author of The Mind of the South, and Clarence Cason, author of 90° in the Shade, Smith did not go the full Quentin Compson and commit suicide after publishing a poetic, guilt-laden jeremiad—but instead authored book after book laying bare the South’s transgressions. She was fearless, a rabble-rouser and rebel who integrated her life and art.
We have come to expect and accept black and white in the workplace, on the playing field, in politics, in the military, and we congratulate ourselves on our steady march to racial harmony. But our neighborhoods and our restaurants do not look much different today than they did fifty years ago. That Kingly vision of sitting down at the same table together and breaking bread is as smudgy as it’s ever been.
Cooking with Chris. Recently my wife suggested I write a column about meals I actually prepare. She was making fun of me in that good-natured way of couples (vicious passive-aggressive combat) and I huffily pointed out that I’d already written about omelets. Uh-huh, she said, breakfast. Yes, you can make eggs.