Larry Scheiber was born on January 10, 1937, in Huntington, Indiana, and he grew up there, never leaving home until he joined the paratroopers for a three-year stint in 1957. At age twenty-three he returned to Huntington and his former job at Wabash Magnetics, an electronics plant on the east side of town. Larry decided to “bach it” rather than stay with his mother, who still lived in Huntington. His first bachelor flat was an unimproved garage behind the house of his friend Jim Brown. This garage is the setting for Larry’s story of his encounter with an unusually large rat.
Very briefly, the story begins with Larry’s description of his austere living quarters and his emphasis on the winter season and the obvious hardship of living in an unheated garage during a northern Indiana winter. One consequence of his living in a garage is the presence of a large rat, whom Larry dubs Koo-Nar. The rat expects to be fed. One night Larry forgets to feed Koo-Nar, and later he dreams that Koo-Nar attacks him in bed. In his dream he kills Koo-Nar by strangling him. Only in the spring when he moves out of the garage does Larry discover that he really had killed Koo-Nar. It was not a dream. Koo-Nar’s corpse lay just below the bed, preserved by the cold.
My interpretation of this personal narrative views the ordeal of staying in the garage as a self-imposed initiation ritual, a rite of passage into manhood, and the rat is the primary symbolic adversary. The purpose of the initiation is twofold: first, to devise and successfully pass a test of endurance, and second, to discover a personally significant symbol that will serve in a personal evaluation of manhood. From my perspective, the lengthy stay in the old garage is a classic endurance test, and the rat is a symbol for the negative masculine sex-role stereotypes Larry hopes to replace with the more positive norms he has learned to value—namely, the positive traits of courage, physical toughness, and independence.
To present this interpretation more effectively, I would like to create a tutor text of “Koo-Nar, King of the Rats.” A tutor text, as explained in chapter 3, is not simply a carefully documented performance text, such as that which closes Elizabeth Fine’s study of The Folklore Text (1984). A tutor text is an instructional text that allows the interpreter to document contextuality, or the interpretive context. It is rather more like the analytical text Roland Barthes offers in S/Z, his interpretation of Balzac’s Sarrasine. And, like Barthes’s S/Z , the tutor text will be presented in analytical segments. An unsegmented documentary presentation of the text (version #1) can be found in the Appendix.
KN-1: [Setting] Koo-Nar, King of the Rats
The setting for the presentation of this story is a typical one for Larry. The situation is a late afternoon (after work) social hour at a local bar. Anthropologist Susan Ervin-Tripp suggests a useful distinction that breaks down the setting into its two referents: “that of locale, or time and place, and that of situation” (1964:86). The locale in this case is the Do-Drop-Inn, located in Huntington across the Wabash tracks on South Jefferson Street (doesn’t every town have a Do-Drop-Inn?). This particular version of “Koo-Nar” was recorded on October 17, 1974, a Thursday. The Do-Drop—or Terry’s, as Larry usually called it—was one of Larry’s favorite spots. The owner (and frequent bartender) was Terry Pastenbaugh, and because Larry was a regular, Terry tolerated a fair number of signs that identified this as Larry’s “home territory bar.”1 Some of these signs include a Wabash Magnetics bumper sticker on the back entrance (several other regulars also work at Wabash), a few of Larry’s “Campfire Corner” articles from the Huntington Herald-Press tacked to the bulletin board on the south wall near the bar, and a wall mounting of a “quarrow” donated by Larry. Unless one asked about the “quarrow’s” origin, the small stuffed bird could go unnoticed or perhaps even scorned by those who fancy impressive wall trophies such as deer, bear, wildcat, or maybe an owl or hawk. There is, in fact, no such creature as a “quarrow,” though it might now qualify as one of the mythological creatures, like the hoop snake, so popular in early American folklore. The “quarrow” was actually created through Larry’s skillful taxidermy—a combination of a quail and a sparrow. Quite in character, Larry created as well a myth to explain the origin and habits of the strange fowl. According to Larry, the creature was a freak of nature that appeared suddenly at Larry’s favorite mushroom spot. Because the bird stole the best mushrooms, Larry had no choice but to do it in. I might add that though the Do-Drop-Inn has changed hands, names, and decor since 1974, the “quarrow” survives in another bar across town on East Market, Larry’s new “home territory bar.”
Terry’s in 1974 was a long, narrow building, approximately twenty feet by seventy feet including the small back room where supplies were stored. Like most of the “buildings on the bridge”—for which Huntington was once recognized in the National Almanac—Terry’s had an upper floor that had once served as an apartment but was now condemned. Though the building was of simple wood frame construction, it had not suffered the considerable deterioration so obvious in the structures actually over the waters of the Little River (a branch of the Wabash that runs through town). The front of the building was plain; a single high window let some daylight into the long, dark interior. A handpainted sign advertised the name of the bar, while a commercial electric sign announced that Miller beer might be consumed within. Red plastic-covered booth benches were set all along the north wall of the room. The bar ran along the south wall and was about twenty feet long. Typically, the hard liquors were displayed behind it on a tiered platform. A microwave oven (for heating “Jet-wiches,” a sandwich of cheese and dried beef) and racks of potato chips, pretzels, and beer nuts were at the far end of the countertop. Stools lined the bar, and a jukebox was flanked by two booths on the north wall. Just beyond the end of the bar and the row of booths was a single pool table with the usual low-swinging metal-shaded light casting shadows over the players.
The locale itself adds much to the situation in this case. Not only is there a typical “bar situation,” but there is also a typical situation for Terry’s on a Thursday afternoon after the major industries in town have closed down for the day. Many of Larry’s friends or coworkers stop in for a few beers and maybe a game of pool before going home for the evening. I should mention that most of the patrons are men. The few women that do come in always sit at one of the tables and wait for Terry to come and ask for their order (unless they are with a man—who goes to the bar and orders for them). Needless to say, the context is not one in which I am a natural participant. I had never been to Terry’s before my first interview there with Larry. On the other hand, though I am not a habitué of the Do-Drop-Inn, the “bar situation” itself is flexible enough to accommodate me and the various role characteristics the bar patrons (including Larry) might assign to me—even that of fieldworker intent on recording oral stories. For Larry, then, the situation is typical in all respects except for my expectations that he will (1) sit at a table with me and my sister, Carol, and (2) allow me to record his stories. Normally, Larry would sit at the bar, swapping stories with friends and greeting customers as they come in. Though Larry makes a point of speaking with any women who do come into Terry’s, he usually does not join them for any length of time at their table, but rather wanders back to the bar or to other groups.
My presence and expectations do alter the typical context, then, but the usual situation is for the most part intact. The audience for Larry’s story includes me and my sister, Carol, as well as other bar customers who occasionally tum their ear in our direction. Most of the regulars have heard Larry’s stories before, but a number of them seem to enjoy the obvious notoriety Larry has earned and the fact that someone actually wants to record his “lies.” My sister is, as will become obvious, an appropriately responsive audience member. She has known Larry longer than I have, and because she is closer to him in age, she shares many more acquaintances and cultural references with him than I do. (In 1974, Larry was thirty-eight years old, Carol was thirty-three, and I was twenty-seven. I had not lived in Huntington since 1970; Carol and Larry both lived in Huntington and worked at Wabash Magnetics.) On this Thursday afternoon we were seated in a booth, and Larry had ordered a round of drinks. I soon learned that one of the “rules” of bar behavior—at least at this bar, but also generally, according to Cavan’s study (1966:117) —was the understanding that women do not offer to buy drinks in a mixed-sex group. Even my fieldworker role was no match for a long-standing sex-role dictate.2 If Larry ever buys into women’s lib, I owe him at least a dozen rounds of beer.
|KN-2:||Carol:||I must hear about Queue-Nar the Frog.|
|Larry:||Koo-Nar, not Queue-Nar.|
This first exchange between Carol and Larry alludes indirectly to one of Larry’s “Campfire Corner” articles. During the period of this recording, Larry regularly wrote a local nature-and-humor column for the hometown newspaper. Recently, Larry had written up a report on “The Koo-Nar Saga” in which he detailed a frog-hunting adventure that closed with the capture of the “biggest and most elusive” bullfrog of all—Koo-Nar. The huge bullfrog was dubbed “king of the frogs” when first sighted. After several unsuccessful chases, Larry finally caught the frog in the beam of his light and threw his No. 2 frog gig, and “Koo-Nar was dethroned unceremoniously.” Not only did Larry get to eat the large legs of Koo-Nar at the Labor Day frogleg feast, but he also tanned the skin of one leg and stretched it over his knife sheath, webbed foot still intact. I suppose the magical implications of eating the flesh of the conquered king are obvious enough, as is the symbolic transferral of potency represented by his covering the knife with the skin of Koo-Nar’s leg.
Larry does not explain why the frog is called Koo-Nar, only that he was “king of the frogs,” that is, “the biggest and most elusive.” Even though Larry does not say where the name Koo-Nar came from, he does make a point of correcting Carol’s pronunciation of the name (the spelling in the first line represents my approximation of Carol’s pronunciation; Larry’s pronunciation of Koo-Nar is as it is spelled). Larry’s attention to the pronunciation grows in part from the narrowly spread tradition surrounding the name: only he and his buddies had used the name before its appearance in the “Campfire Corner” article. Larry was still in a position to dictate how the name should be pronounced, since as far as he was concerned he had made the name up himself.
The name does seem to be entirely Larry’s own creation. Unlike the “new comparative mythologists,” I shall not attempt any real or possible reconstruction of unconscious linguistic sources that may have influenced Larry’s creation (or recombination/selection) of the word Koo-Nar.3 However, an association that appears meaningful to me is the similarity between Koo-Nar and Kohinoor, the name given to the very large (106 or 109 carat) diamond from India that became one of the crown jewels of England in 1849. This famous gem was very likely in the news during the coronation of Elizabeth II (1952), when Larry was in his teens; he could have been taken with the name and unconsciously retained the association with great size and the crown (or kingship). Whether or not Larry really made such associations between the two names, to me as listener the regality and size associated with the name Kohinoor (pronounced [ko-a-noor]) enhances my appreciation of the name Koo-Nar. It connotes more fully the sense of power, great size, uniqueness, and regality of the creature identified by the name.
Beyond the introduction of the name Koo-Nar, an interesting game of implicature is represented by the brief exchange in segment KN-2. The ethnography of bar talk is fairly complicated, as Spradley and Mann (1975) have shown, but a cardinal rule is that women are never to be overtly aggressive in exchanges with men. Carol’s opening statement is easily heard as a mildly veiled command; she says, “I must hear about Queue-Nar the Frog.” If she must hear the story, then Larry must tell it. Larry’s response to the mock order is to correct Carol’s pronunciation—a mild and appropriate put-down, but a put-down just the same (he could have ignored the pronunciation). The rhetoric of the statement is perceived by Larry as inappropriately aggressive. Inadvertently, Carol has placed Larry in the position of having to defend his manhood, at least as defined in the bar context. Acceptable bar bantering must ultimately support the cardinal rule of male aggressiveness and female passivity. And Larry feels the pressure of this rule even if Carol has missed it (or perhaps purposefully flouted it).
|KN-3:||Carol:||OK, who named him Koo-Nar? In the first place?|
|Larry:||Well, we named him after the king of the rats who used to live—|
|Sandy:||King of what rats? !|
|Larry:||You never heard about Koo-Nar—the king of the rats?!|
|Carol:||Nooo, you never told me about Koo-Nar [laughs], the king of the rats.|
Following the awkward opening, the dialogue takes an unexpected tum and sets the scene for the story that follows. Carol briefly acknowledges Larry’s correction and implied message by answering, “OK.” Because “OK” enjoys so many context-based meanings in our culture, Larry is free to assume that in saying “OK” Carol recognizes his “authority” both in regard to the pronunciation of Koo-Nar and in regard to his role as a male and a regular at Terry’s. Carol then uses a more acceptable tone but again, more subtly this time, challenges Larry to defend, not his authority as a male but rather his “authority” for dubbing the frog “king” and giving him the name Koo-Nar. Larry responds to this with his usual unnerving straight-faced seriousness, introducing in an offhand manner the “king of the rats” as his “obvious” source. This is our first clue that Larry is a consummate tall-tale artist (even when not telling “tall tales”). As Henningsen says of the tall-tale teller, “He does not expect to be believed, but he wants not to be interrupted as long as he lies consistently” (1965:213).
Larry is not literally lying in this instance—he did borrow the notion of Koo-Nar, king of the frogs, from his earlier notion of Koo-Nar, king of the rats. The “lying” technique is rather in his seemingly straightforward assumption that “king of the rats” is an acceptable cultural allusion. In fact, as we shall see, the allusion is shared or collective only in the narrowest sense—that is, among Larry’s close friends. Through the story that follows, the allusion becomes an element of idioculture or private folklore for Carol and me, as it was for Larry’s usual audience of regulars at Terry’s. Larry uses this bit of personalore as a source in this offhand allusion just as an accomplished liar would make a most matter-of-fact reference to an entirely fictional frame he imposes upon his listeners as acceptable and true. In typical lying contest form, Larry answers the challenge to one lie with another lie. In this instance, my response to Larry’s second lie reflects my familiarity with the genre of the tall tale and my sensitivity to motifs of folk literature. The eagerness of my question—”King of what rats?!”—is all too obviously that of an overzealous folklorist who has caught what she hopes is a real live (indexed even) folkloric allusion in the midst of the mundane.
Actually, the immediate association I had—the one that prompted my question, I am sure—was not motif B241.2.4, King of Rats (there is indeed such a motif), but rather the better-known traditional tale that turns on the death of the King of the Cats, Aarne Thompson type 113 A, The King of the Cats Is Dead. In this enigmatic tale, usually a man comes home, where his wife and house cat are waiting for him, and announces that he has seen a cat funeral or someone has told him that X (some name) is dead, whereupon the house cat leaps up and says, “Now I am king of the cats,” and disappears (usually up the chimney). I have always been intrigued by the tale, perhaps because the man finds himself unwittingly playing a role in a “cultural system”—the kingdom of the cats—which has all along existed before his very eyes without his once suspecting it. Whatever the reason, my response to Larry was much as I would have put into the mouths of the man and wife in AT 113A: “King of what cats?!”—or more precisely, “Where is there a kingdom of cats? I have never heard of it!” Larry responds to exactly this implication in my question when he says, “You never heard about Koo-Nar, the king of the rats?!”
Larry’s response is also a play on a personal allusion shared only by Larry, me, my husband, and Carol. The allusion involves only the first part of the question and an exaggeration of the tone of disbelief that usually accompanies it. The personalore involved is an earlier incident, not long after I had first met Larry, in which I had commented on Larry’s use of a famous quotation in one of his “Campfire Corner” articles. He responded that he didn’t know who had said it, so I suggested Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. He replied something like, “Hmm, what’s that?” And I, in sincere disbelief, countered, “You’ve never heard of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations?!” Thereupon, I was startled and amused by an odd gesture. Grasping his upper lip between his thumb and forefinger, with his chin slightly extended, Larry pulled his lip toward me in repeated tugs while exclaiming, “No, I’ve never heard of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations!” Thus mildly chastised, I acknowledged the possible insult of my incredulous tone and dropped the subject of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.4 Nevertheless, I always now associate the gesture with the phrase “You never heard of. . . ?” and especially when Larry brings it to mind, as in the pointed use of the phrase here in his comment on the king of the rats.
Finally, it should be noted that Carol’s response brings the “lying” frame full circle by dispelling any lingering possibility that “king of the rats” is indeed a cultural (in the large sense) allusion. She says, “Nooo [picking up Larry’s mocking tone], you never told me about Koo-Nar [laughs] the king of the rats.” In other words, it is clear that Carol knows there is no real, or even a traditional, “king of the rats” to which Larry is referring; rather, the only way she would ever know about this alleged “king of the rats” is if Larry were to tell her, since it is obviously his own creation—the fictitious frame for the lie he is going to tell. So, of course, Larry then proceeds to tell his story.
|KN-4:||Larry:||OK—when I first got out of the service ...|
This introductory clause is part of the orientation, as Labov and Waletzky (1967:32) identify it; in this instance, it is an indication of the approximate date and place of the incident to follow. Getting out of the service usually means going home, especially if one is so young as Larry was when he finished his three-year stint as a paratrooper (he was barely twenty-three). The incident, then, takes place in Huntington, and the date is midwinter, early 1960. An important bit of personalore is assumed in Larry’s casual reference to the service. In fact, Larry was very proud of having served as a paratrooper—not so much out of patriotic fervor (though he is quite patriotic) but rather because parachuting is such an adventurous and hazardous activity. Even in this allusion to his three years as a paratrooper, Larry already introduces the dominant theme of the story—his determined efforts to “prove his manhood.” Twenty years later, Larry still wears his “Screaming Eagles” paratrooper jacket. As we shall see, the parachute itself is symbolically retained and used (in a new capacity) even after his return to civilian life.
|KN-5:||Larry:||...I was poverty-stricken. I went through my—my, what-do-you-call-it, separation money like flies on shit, you know? Buying drinks for the whole crew. I’d go into bars and just say, “Give everybody a drink,” and throw in a wad of money and go into the next bar and say, “Buy a round for the house,” and lay it out. I was really cool!|
|Carol:||You were so glad to be home—|
|Larry:||No, I wanted to make friends—’cause—I’d been out of circulation for so long.|
With the completion of the sentence, Larry introduces the important secondary theme of poverty, or surviving economic hard times. The implication is that the hard times are temporary. The theme of surviving hard times is effective only if it can be perceived as a test that can be passed at some point in the future. “Poverty-stricken” in Larry’s case is to be seen from a middle-class perspective: it is a blow that can be remedied in time. In fact, in version #2 of “Koo-Nar,” Larry identifies very specifically the time period that must pass before he successfully survives economic hard times. He says: “And for the first two weeks, you know, I didn’t have a paycheck or anything. See, I was workin’ at Wabash Magnetics, and when you work there, you don’t get paid at the end of your first week. You don’t get paid until the second week. And I did not have shit—I mean literally nil, and I wouldn’t accept anything from anybody ‘cause I was too damn proud.” Larry can well afford to be “too damn proud” to accept anyone’s help because he knows that he will be paid at the end of two weeks; he is not caught in the trap of hopeless poverty. His self-description as “too damn proud” is in fact so overstated as to be tongue-in-cheek from the perspective of several years later. A similar ambiguity lightens the tone of some of Larry’s best “Campfire” articles, in which Larry’s family is depicted as “poor but proud.” With nostalgic humor, he writes about the mixed virtue of such poor but hopeful beginnings.
To return to version #1, we might well be intrigued with Larry’s explanation of why he was “poverty-stricken” (in version #2 he offers no reason except that he had not yet received a paycheck). In version #1 he actually seems to be awkwardly flouting the Maxim of Quantity, as Grice and Pratt identify it: “Do not make your contribution more informative than is required” (Pratt 1977:130). That is, rather than letting his listeners assume that he simply was broke because he had not yet received his first paycheck (as in version #2), he confesses that he has blown his military separation money in an obvious effort to buy some new friends, to “get back into circulation.” Like most intimate exposures of a more serious nature, this disclosure was not expected or required by his audience. Neither Carol nor I (having never served in the military) would have thought to ask, “Yes, but what about your separation money?” Instead, the revelation is entirely of Larry’s own choosing. Perhaps he feels safe in doing so because we are women, or maybe he even intentionally does so because we are women and would welcome some sign that he is a vulnerable and sensitive individual who recognizes his need for social relationships. As one male journalist has said, “Suddenly, to be male and vulnerable is to be utterly acceptable—but only to women” (Engel 1982:13). Not only is a vulnerable male acceptable to women, he is in fact appealing if he can manage to impress the woman who witnesses his vulnerability that his confession is exclusive—a sign that she in particular is worthy of his trust. Having been reared by two women (his mother and aunt), Larry likely has learned that confession to women more often produces a bond of intimacy rather than judgment. Whether he prefers the intimacy over the judgment is not necessarily implied, but I think he has discerned a subtle sex-based rhetorical rule: women rather like to be the recipients of intimate (verbal) exposures by men. In this case, it is significant that in version #2, where two males—John Fisher (a friend of Larry’s) and Mark (my husband)—are present, reference to the squandered separation money is entirely absent.
It is interesting that Larry’s direct articulation of his desire to make friends and get back into circulation comes after Carol’s suggestion that his extravagance is in fact exuberance at being home. Larry denies this more “respectable” motive—there is nothing shameful about joyful (if thriftless) celebration at being home again, after all. This is our first clear indication that Carol will consistently try to determine Larry’s evaluation of the story content (the incident) and express it verbally herself, thereby inviting his agreement or further elaboration (or disagreement, as in this case). Whereas Labov and Waletzky (and Robinson in reassessing their study) suggest that the teller himself offers the necessary evaluation of a personal narrative, I would argue that this feature of the story is always individualized among the listeners and teller and may even be articulated separately as in this case, through short dialogue among the participants while the story is being told, or, as is often the case with my mother’s stories, not articulated at all but rather silently evolved within the teller’s or listener’s own understanding. (This would put the form of the personal narrative more in line with the oral legend as Dégh has described it, rather than the typical folktale—even when the audience does not verbally interrupt) (see respectively Labov and Waletzky 1967; Robinson 1981; and Dégh 1965b). Larry’s own evaluation of his behavior was actually expressed somewhat sardonically just before Carol’s comment. He says simply, “I was really cool!” By thus labeling his own behavior, Larry implies that he was actively striving to be “cool,” something a really cool person does not do. And of course in the 1970s the word cool used in this way is slightly anachronistic.
Finally, we hear within this segment our first colorful hint that Larry exhibits an inexhaustible supply of traditional expressions or expressions modeled on traditional ones. Some are simply standard examples of folk speech—“a wad of money,” “a round for the house,” “out of circulation.” Others—for instance, the proverbial simile “like flies on shit”—are obvious reminders that he is not inhibited by whatever social, religious, or personal pressures might discourage the use of “dirty words.” In fact, the only real inhibition I have ever noticed in Larry’s oral storytelling is his conscientious avoidance of the word fuck when speaking to women. In his story of “The Red Velvet Suit” (see the Appendix), we can see his self-imposed censorship at work in his substitution of the sound eff [F] for “fuck” and the sound emm eff urs [M-fers] for motherfuckers. In fact, he is complaining about someone else using the terms (a striking example of unsolicited oral literary criticism)! Larry says, “We’d been there about five minutes and here comes some little punk in, goin’ ‘F-this, F-that,’ calling people M-fers.” He then comments, “I asked him three times, I said, ‘Hey, man, people have got their wives here and stuff. Now cool it or I’m gonna break your jaw!’” When a fight ensues, the hostess of the party calls Larry a “son-of-a-bitch troublemaker” and tells him to leave. Larry responds with disbelief and asks, “Didn’t you hear what he was sayin’?” When the hostess replies that, yes, she heard and, no, she didn’t mind, Larry says, “Well, then you’re a damned hog!” Obviously, Larry feels no decent woman would (or should) tolerate this particular “dirty word” in her presence.5 In fact, Larry complained when I showed him the transcript of his story “Tiny Wires and the Chicken Blood” (see chapter 3) that he would never have said “fuckin’ bucket” in front of a woman. I assured him that his writer’s love for assonance was obviously just too compelling in this instance.
I should point out that Larry is well aware of the variety of contexts in which euphemisms or simple avoidance of “dirty words” is appropriate. On the other hand, he is also aware that for a man to use a euphemism in place of a “dirty word” is, as Larry would say, a “sissy-assed thing to do.” It is interesting to see how he gets around this dilemma in his “Campfire Corner” articles, in which, of course, he is expected to keep his language “clean.” Rather than resort to traditional euphemisms (though he sometimes does use them tongue-in-cheek), Larry translates the dirty slang into its most literal (and least recognizable) expression. For example, in “The Koo-Nar Saga” he writes: “From across the pond out of the darkness there issued a stream of comments questioning the legality of my family tree, the reputations of my ancestors. . . .” Easily, we can see that Larry has been called a bastard and a son-of-a-bitch, but he wouldn’t dare print that. On the other hand, he does want his readers to know that in the proper context he does indeed “talk like a man,” and so do his friends. Terry’s is a man’s world. Women in “the bar situation” are expected to tolerate (perhaps share) the use of dirty words, at least up to a point dictated by current taste (or the values of the bar regulars).
Before leaving this segment (or more accurately, its counterpart in version #2), I should clarify one item of reference generally restricted to residents of Huntington—Larry’s place of employment, Wabash Magnetics (now Kearney Wabash). Wabash, as it is usually called by its employees, is a manufacturing firm that produces electric coil windings and high-voltage power supplies. Most of the production lines are “manned” by women who wind, glue, solder, magnetize, assemble, and pack the factory’s products. Inspectors on the lines are also women (Carol was an inspector at Wabash in 1974). Except for the office secretaries, nearly all the nonproduction employees and upper-level production supervisors are men. Larry works as a technical engineer at Wabash. Much of his day-to-day social interaction with women (at least in 1974) grew out of the asymmetrical employment arrangement at Wabash, and this pattern was reinforced by the typical male-dominant bar culture at Terry’s.
|KN-6:||Larry:||Well, anyway, to compensate for this [pause] obvious lack of thrift, I moved in a guy’s—it was supposedly a garage, but it sorta leaned at a forty-five-degree angle and had about an inch slits in the boards—between the sides. And I hung a parachute up for a ceiling, you know, and I parked my MG under there. And I had a bed—three innersprings and three mattresses! And—and that’s all I had in there for furniture—and then an ironing board, and then I had a vise on the ironing board—and that was my kitchen.|
This description of the spartan living quarters in Jim Brown’s garage completes the orientation section. Each of the five items Larry mentions in the orientation section feeds into the theme of masculinity. That is, aside from the overall rugged existence suggested by the description of Larry’s living quarters, Larry’s description invokes a series of minor symbolic items that also serve the theme of masculinity. The first of these is the garage itself. Initially, the garage would seem a poor image; Larry describes it, in version #2, as “an old shabby-assed, fallen-down thing that had a pile of bricks down at one end holdin’ it up. And it had half-inch cracks you could see between the boards. I mean it was really sad—leaned at a forty-five-degree angle.” No man would want to identify with such a building; it is definitely not properly erect but seems to be instead well on its way toward going flat. Larry proceeds to remove the bricks from the comer (as he explains in version #2), “which made it lose another ten degrees.” He looks at the sagging structure and says, “Hell, I’ll lift it,” and he does. The garage is now properly erect, and its erection is both symbolically and more mundanely a tribute to Larry’s masculinity. It is, after all, a manly virtue to be competent in the engineering and performance of tasks of construction and building repair.
The second item Larry mentions is his parachute. Telling the story in 1974, Larry seems very aware of the symbolism with which he surrounds the parachute and its use as insulator and wall covering in his rough abode. He says in version #2: “I had this big parachute; I’d stretched it across the ceiling hoping it would hold in the heat, my body heat, ya know. And I had another parachute halfway through the garage, and I had my MG pulled in it, on the other side of the parachute. ‘Cause I was still living this old paratrooper role, ya know. Had the strings a-hangin’ down, and I’d built a little fireplace and had a big fire cracklin’ there. I was really cool. And I had gourds all hollowed out with candles in them.” Larry knows that he was still clinging to the ready-made macho image he had earned as a paratrooper, and he knows that he was probably overplaying the role, bringing in the romantic Robinson Crusoe imagery (hollowed-out gourds, hand-built fireplace, insulating draperies). He was, as he says, “really cool.” But, self-conscious or not, the symbolism of the parachute certainly adds to the theme of masculinity in the orientation section. Along with the parachute, Larry’s MG is a third symbol of machismo. MG is the accepted acronym for a small sports car from Morris Garages. As Priscilla Denby (1981) has pointed out, in American culture vehicles of this sort are an acknowledged male symbol. Men who own MGs readily identify with them, keeping them shiny and in top running order, and Larry seems to follow the convention.
The fourth item Larry describes in some detail is his bed: “And I had a bed—three innersprings and three mattresses!” In version #2, he reduces the number of springs and mattresses to two each: “I got two bed springs and put ‘em in there and two innerspring mattresses, put those on top of the bed springs. And it was ‘broing, broing’—[makes up-and-down motion with hand]—better than a waterbed!” The seemingly innocent word bed—and especially the more recent waterbed—bring immediately to mind the notion of “going to bed”—not alone, of course. Larry accentuates the obvious by including hand gestures and onomatopoeia that suggest someone (ones) bouncing on the bed (reminiscent of the perennial newlyweds’ car slogan: “Hot Springs Tonight”). In addition to the meaning in the story, the word bed picks up some extra charge from its use in the specific storytelling context. Bed is always an awkward word in mixed company, or rather it is one usually avoided unless the speaker actually wants to (in a seemingly innocent manner) insert some slight sexual innuendo into the conversation. Edward Sagarin quotes Randolph and Wilson on the subject of Ozark word usage: “Even bed is not a term to be used by ‘nice’ girls before male strangers” (Sagarin 1962:100). Larry, of course, has to mention bed at some point since it figures in the plot of his story; nevertheless, it serves well early in the story as a sign of his constant readiness to engage in sexual activity and thus as a symbol of his masculinity.
Finally, Larry mentions his kitchen table—an ironing board with a vise on it. The ironing board itself is certainly in keeping with the Robinson Crusoe image already established. Superficially, it is simply an old piece of junk relegated to the storage shed (garage). Larry, being resourceful, puts it to use as a table—since, as he says, he has no other furniture. However, no man’s man would ever be caught with an ironing board sitting around in his house—unless, of course, he could in some way make it obvious that the board is never used for ironing but only as a makeshift table. Larry accomplishes this by attaching a vise—an obvious sign that the ironing board is in fact a work bench (an acceptably male piece of furniture) that also serves as a “kitchen table.” Thus, the otherwise feminine piece of furniture is transformed functionally and symbolically into a masculine one.
|KN-7:||Larry:||Really, I lived in this shack, and I’d wake up with snow drifts on my bed.|
|Carol:||Think how it toughened you, Larry! You’re a better person for it!|
|Larry:||Did you ever take a bath in Lake Clare in February?! [High-pitched] Oh, hoho—God! It makes my goodies blue just to think about it. Oh, Lord!|
In a summary sentence, Larry capsulizes the rigors of life in a garage through a most effective exaggeration: “I’d wake up with snow drifts on my bed.” The thematic impetus behind Larry’s decision to stay in the garage—snow drifts and all—is more clearly expressed in version #2. There he says: “I really didn’t have anywhere to live, you know. And I didn’t want to move into Mom’s ‘cause that seemed like such a sissy-assed thing to do. So my buddy Brown, he was living with his mom—he had no shame—[Laughter], he said, ‘You can live in our garage!’ Well, I actually asked him. (You guys got me tellin’ the truth.) I actually asked him if I could live in his garage. And he said, ‘You’re out of your mind!’ ya know. And I said, ‘Well, can I live in there?’ And he said, ‘Hell, yes!—if you can hack it.’” Larry bluntly states that he did not want to move back into his mother’s house. There are subtle clues, however, that from the perspective of fifteen years later, Larry is somewhat amused by this obvious posturing and overemphasis on a macho image. He says moving into Mom’s seemed like “such a sissy-assed thing to do.” He humorously accused Jim Brown of having “no shame,” though it is clear that Larry is stereotyping himself for us (listeners) through his use of this melodramatic convention. Nevertheless, he makes it clear that it was his decision to live in the garage, not because he had to but because he wanted to prove that he could “hack it.” Later in version #2, his mother says, “You’ve proved your point, you’re a big outdoorsman.” He even lets the storytelling situation itself lend support (insidiously) to the theme of proving his masculinity. He corrects his statement that Jim Brown had suggested his staying in the garage. Instead, he asserts that he has been caught in a lie, that the truth is he asked if he could stay in the garage. His confession makes it hard for us to entertain any notion but that he had asked to stay in the garage, that he sought out his own test to prove his manhood. (“You guys,” by the way, can in mid western usage include females, as it does here, just as “y’all” in the South is inclusive.)
Carol responds to Larry’s capsule statement with an evaluative comment that, superficially anyway, reinforces Larry’s he-man image. She implies that his stoic endurance has bolstered his manly character: “You’re a better person for it!” But again, as with Larry’s own tongue-in-cheek comment about Jim Brown, Carol’s tone is not without a tinge of sarcasm—as though she recognizes the overstatement or stereotyping invoked through Larry’s exaggerated description of his wintry testing ground. Larry is not about to let Carol’s mild sarcasm pass unnoticed. He immediately poses a rhetorical question: “Did you ever take a bath in Lake Clare in February?!” Neither Carol nor I bother to answer, of course, since it is obvious that Larry is actually implying that he did bathe in Lake Clare in February—clearly the ultimate test of his manly stoicism. He then rather dramatically recreates an illusionary midwinter plunge and its effect; that is, he raises the pitch of his voice and utters a startled response cry (Goffman [1981:101] would call it a “transition display”) as though he had just entered the icy waters before our very eyes. As if the falsetto cry were not enough—Legman (1975:465) describes the sudden use of falsetto as an example of metonymy in which the understood referent is castration—Larry explicitly reminds us that he has thus willingly tested his most vulnerable parts.6 Even the memory of the icy bath is enough to “turn his goodies blue”—which, I suppose, is an obvious reminder that he indeed still has them. Though goodies is not conventional slang (or rather its usual meaning is something edible, such as party appetizers—mountain oysters?), it is clear in this context that Larry is rather nicely avoiding any traditional terms that refer to the testicles while yet invoking sufficient associations for clarity. Though even in mixed company the term balls is frequently used, generally as a synonym for guts or nerve, still it is a bit awkward for a man to publicly use the term balls in front of a woman when referring specifically to his own body. To me at least it seemed that Larry was purposefully avoiding the word that would mentally (linguistically) invite a personal exposure while at the same time flirtatiously invoking the kind of “catch-tale” word play that embarrasses the audience rather than the teller for hearing the taboo implication.
A locally restricted cultural referent is Lake Clare. Some additional humor attends this allusion for those who live around Huntington, in that even in summer Lake Clare is very cold. The lake was originally a limestone quarry; the spring that feeds it keeps the water cold, as do the depth, the straight, clifflike banks, and the general paucity of aquatic vegetation. The lake is on the northeast periphery of Huntington, not far from the Wabash Magnetics plant. The whole notion of anyone bathing in Lake Clare in the wintertime is ludicrous, but the image effectively conveys the secondary theme of enduring severe winter conditions, all part of the symbolic testing of the “great outdoorsman.” And of course beneath the imagery is the primary structural function of the test, specifically in this case “Manhood to prove.”
|KN-8:||Larry:||So anyhow, where in the hell was I anyhow—?|
|Carol:||King of the rats !|
|Larry:||OK, OK, Koo-Nar, king of the rats—. [Everyone: Right!]|
This brief exchange—which would make absolutely no sense out of context—is an example of what William O. Hendricks, and Barbara A. Babcock soon after, have called “metanarration” (see Babcock 1977:62). That is, the dialogue is a reflexive dimension of the storytelling. Larry’s question—”Where in the hell was I anyhow?”—refers to the ongoing story itself; he is in effect telling his audience that he has temporarily lost his place in the narrative. In light of the raucous dramatics preceding this segment, I would suspect that Larry has lost himself in a moment of self-consciousness, perhaps embarrassment. Whatever the reason, Larry has temporarily lost his train of thought, and he asks our aid in returning him to the narrative. It is interesting that Carol simply invokes the tacitly recognized title of the story (“Koo-Nar, King of the Rats”) rather than picking up some catchwords from the immediately preceding narrative content—something like “bathing in Lake Clare” or “the garage.” Carol does not in fact answer Larry’s question at all. Since, as Grice and Pratt suggest, coherence in any conversation depends on implicatures, we might ask what is implicated by Carol’s comment (see Pratt 1977:154). As is typical throughout the text, Carol’s statement is evaluative, and in this case, it is metanarrationally evaluative. That is, she suggests indirectly that it is time to move away from the orientation section of the story and get on to the complicating action, the plot itself. (As suggested earlier, unlike Labov and Waletzky, I view the evaluation as a scattered or evolved phenomenon shared by the participants rather than a separable segment in the teller’s text.) Larry’s response to Carol’s implied suggestion is a slightly nettled “OK, OK.” After all, it is his story. But I concur with Carol, Larry agrees, and we move on.
|KN-9:||Larry:||OK, when I first moved in there I didn’t have money zero. And—and all I had was three pieces of celery that a guy gave me from work.|
|Carol:||Oh, you poor baby!|
|Larry:||—So I made soup out of it in a tin can. [Laughter] I really and truly did, honest to God, that’s all I had for all week. And as things got better I bought a loaf of bread and—but listen, let me tell you, before I moved out of there I had money stashed in nail cans, and ...|
|Carol:||You were a miser!|
|Larry:||Yeah, you could say that! Really!|
Larry backtracks briefly with a reiteration of his “poverty-stricken” state on moving into the garage. By way of illustration, he begins what I think would have been a fairly detailed embedded story of his soup-making experience (the experience is reported in detail in version #2). Carol interrupts Larry with some bantering mock sympathy, and Larry then compresses the incident into a single sentence and goes on to defend the truth of his statement. Though Carol’s statement may seem intrusive in light of the fuller detail I am assuming Larry might have included, it is more accurately simply a response to her own interpretation of Larry’s line about the celery. Unlike Larry, who likely intended to present the lie about the soup in accepted tall-tale fashion (remember, Henningsen suggested that a good liar expects not to be interrupted so long as he is consistent), Carol seems to hear Larry’s sentence as a fait accompli, a kind of close-ended imagery that sums up his economic situation. (Carol also contends that she was a bit inebriated, but I don’t think our various “ethnographies of speaking” accommodate such an explanation.) In any event, Larry resorts to a simple bare-faced assertion of the truth of his statement—“I really and truly did, honest to God, that’s all I had for all week”—rather than seducing his listeners into believing him through the time-honored tradition of the well-told lie. For the beauty of it, here is his development of the incident from version #2: “And good old Louis Shoenauer was eating his lunch one day and he says, ‘Larry, you want any of this?’ He had celery sticks and carrot sticks there. And I said, ‘No, I’m not hungry.’ He said, ‘Come on down and eat ‘em, I’m awful full.’ So I said, ‘Well, maybe I’ll eat them later.’ So he said, ‘OK,’ and he handed them to me, and I put ‘em in my pocket. And I got home that night, and I got a big old coffee can that was in there and I dumped the nails out—it was full of rust. And I filled it with water, and I got it boiling; Brown gave me a little hot plate. And I got this water boiling, and I gingerly and carefully [pause] chopped this celery and carrots into this coffee can and boiled it for two hours. And Brown brought me out some salt, and I put that in there. This had to last me two weeks, ya know.” Like most tall-tale tellers (and Larry does tell some traditional tales), Larry skillfully accumulates detail after detail until the punchline is just a breath short of being unassailable.7
There is something about this wonderfully patient and minutely detailed description that evokes both a nostalgic and a pleasantly sensuous response, at least from my perspective. Like the celebrated luxuriousness of Keats’s verbal imagery in “The Eve of St. Agnes,” where Porphyro “with glowing hand” but a strangely restrained deliberateness brings to the bedside bowls “of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd; with jellies soother than the creamy curd, And lucent syrups, tinct with cinnamon,” so Larry in his plain but clear prose creates a brief interlude that delights in the natural sensuousness of quietly restrained verbal detail. He “gingerly and carefully” chops the celery and carrots into the can of boiling water. In version #2 at least, he is in no hurry to skim over the details of his adventure. As in so many children’s adventure stories, every mundane action is infused with great significance through attention to minute detail, as though the actor stood back and watched himself performing the most interesting of rituals in a world made real only through his own wonderfully rich verbal detail.
Larry returns the focus to the theme of poverty and contrasts his economic problems at the beginning of his ordeal with the wealth he has accumulated by the time he is ready to leave the garage. In what is now a fairly consistent pattern, Carol restates or labels Larry’s behavior (“You were a miser!”), and thus offers an evaluative survey of this brief segment. In this instance, Larry concurs with Carol’s evaluation—”Yeah, you could say that! Really!”
|KN-10:||Larry:||Anyway, this rat lived in there with me, you see? Not by invitation! And, every night I’d hear him in the garbage bag, and I’d flash a light over there, and he’d run like hell. And he was a big dude! Well, he got so when I’d flash the light over there, he’d just go [puts thumbs in ears and wiggles fingers while making noise and sticking out tongue], blll-bll-bl. [Laughter] I’m not kidding you, this was a BIG RAT!—looked like a raccoon! [Laughter] And as long as I fed the dude we were on peaceful terms.|
In American culture, rats are rarely viewed in a positive light. My own view of the symbolic aspects of Koo-Nar is cumulative from three analytic perspectives. They are, briefly, (1) collective symbolism, or the perspective of the “informed reader,” (2) personal symbolism, or my subjective perspective, and (3) intranarrative symbolism, or story-specific (restrictive) symbolism, symbolism that evolves through the specific actions of the (nontraditional) plot. The first two perspectives represent again related but slightly conflicting views within the field of reader-response criticism represented by Stanley Fish (1980) and David Bleich (1978) respectively. They do not reflect exactly the distinction made by Raymond Firth (1973) between public and private symbolism, although these terms may seem roughly synonymous; the difference is (as in Bleich’s “subjective paradigm”) that the second perspective does not represent ethnographic insight into private symbols but rather the interpreter’s subjective response to public and/or private symbols. The third perspective can be discussed more effectively in the next segment of the tutor text, since essential plot material (on which this symbolism depends) is presented there.
At the first level, as an “informed” listener, I can research some of the collective symbolism attached to rats generally. Much of the “totemistic” symbolism is culture-specific and for the most part tied to non-Western sacred systems. Certainly within some cultures there have been some positive associations with rats. In Chinese tradition, for example, the rat accompanies the god of riches and should not be killed at the New Year festival lest the riches it symbolizes be lost (see Eberhard 1970:213). Typically in Western tradition, however, the rat is associated only with disease and death. In medieval symbolism it was associated with the devil. And, according to Cirlot, “a phallic implication has been superimposed upon it [the rat], but only in so far as it is dangerous or repugnant” (Cirlot 1962:259-60). Though this “phallic implication” is only associative, it is this particular association of the rat with the usual focus of male sexuality that is, I think, a prominent symbolic connection in the story of Koo-Nar. The adversary in this ritualistic testing is a male and an embodiment of the negative traits associated with maleness.
The rat may be seen as a symbol of the wickedness, vileness, or danger so often associated with sex generally (especially in the strongly conditioned world view of American children or adolescents). In a provocative comparison of other educational systems with our own, Ruth Benedict illustrates the unfortunate disregard for conditioning attitudes in American sex education: “The adult in our culture has often failed to unlearn the wickedness or the dangerousness of sex, a lesson which was impressed upon him strongly in his most formative years” (1968:430). Especially for men (boys), the rat may serve as a symbol for the evil they are taught to associate with their own sexuality. Not only are American boys taught that sex is “bad,” they are taught that male sexuality represents a particularly evil compulsion, the blight that keeps them lower than the angels. There is nothing heroic in this view of male sexuality, no virtue to strive for. The rat cannot deny its aggressive, vicious nature, and, by implication, neither can a young American male easily deny the aggressive sexuality his culture says is his by birthright.
A second level of symbolism—personal symbolism—simply reinforces the negative association with the rat. J. D. A. Widdowson, in an article on “Animals as Threatening Figures in Systems of Traditional Social Control,” comments that rats are often “associated with a dark cellar in which the naughty or annoying child is threatened to be put, where [rats] will eat them” (1978:37). Whether rats are ever specifically mentioned or not, I think all children (and many adults) simply assume that rats live in all dark cellars. At least I can remember believing this as a child. Unfortunately, I was one of those “annoying” children given to temper tantrums (long since outgrown, of course!). Whenever the various strategies my parents employed in trying to distract me from such outbursts failed (and they never resorted to anything more violent than a glass of cold water in the face, which always made more of a mess than it was worth), they would remove me to the “coal bin” downstairs and leave me there to scream it out on my own. I knew there had to be rats down there, but fortunately I never had a chance to dwell on the possible terror of it all—my sister and brothers always managed to distract me by heckling through the heat vents. Actually, I have always been a little disappointed that I have no phobia (of rats, cellars, the dark . . . heckling, maybe) to show for my experience. On the other hand, I do harbor an uneasy suspicion that if you yell too long or too loudly about anything, the rats might get you. Just ask my sister or brothers; that’s what they always told me.
The third level of symbolism—the restrictive symbol, the symbol within the story and reflective of the story—can be assessed only with a closer look at the ongoing plot. This story-specific symbolism evolves most dramatically in the next segment with the unfolding of Koo-Nar’s actions after Larry fails to feed him.
|KN-11:||Carol:||One night you forgot—|
|Larry:||One night I forgot to feed him, and I heard him under the bed. You could hear him running around in the bed springs. Anyway Koo-Nar got in bed. And I had this terrible nightmare, and I dreamed Koo-Nar was, was chewing on my leg. And you know how you move in slow motion in your dreams? And I dreamed I grabbed him and choked him and choked him, and the harder I choked him the harder he’d bite, you know, and he wouldn’t let go. And finally—he just succumbed—as rats do when one shuts off their air. And I dreamed I just threw him [makes motion with arm] just as hard as I could, but it was all slow motion in the dream. (Course, when you got seventeen blankets and a snow drift on top of you, it slows you down, too.) But I never really woke up!|
Carol picks up on Larry’s implication for the ongoing plot in the previous segment. Larry had said, “And as long as I fed the dude we were on peaceful terms.” Carol anticipates the next sequence as a typical interdiction/violation pair (functions II and III in Propp’s [1928:26-28] scheme; the second pair of medial motifemes in Dundes’s [1964a:63]). That is, she hears Larry’s closing statement as a self-imposed interdiction: Thou shalt not forget to feed Koo-Nar. And she anticipates his violation of that interdiction: “One night you forgot [to feed Koo-Nar].” Larry repeats Carol’s structural cue exactly and moves on into an expansion of the “complicating action,” as Labov and Waletzky (1967:32-33) would name it. In terms of plot, this segment simply outlines how Larry “finally got rid of the noxious bastard,” as he says in version #2. However, to return to the symbolism of the rat and its particular evolution within the story, we can see that this segment is much more complicated than its structural role would suggest.
There are three significant aspects in the intranarrative symbolism of the rat: (1) the rat in the experience itself, (2) the rat in the narrative (the rat as projection), and (3) the rat in the dream. The rat in reality (the experience itself) is quite simply a pest. The barn rat, as it is more commonly known, averages in length about sixteen inches (half of which is its long, hairless tail). Raccoons (as in Larry’s comparison) are typically twice this size, so Koo-Nar must have been a rare specimen indeed (or maybe a case of motif number X1227, Lies about rats) (see Thompson 1955:v. 5; see also motif X1227a [Big Rat] in Baughman 1966). Farmers are particularly antagonistic toward rats, since they consume and contaminate grain and other foodstuffs as well as annoying, sometimes biting, livestock and poultry. And in the city rats are a nuisance as well. The title of Richard Dorson’s collection of folklore from Indiana’s Calumet Region, Land of the Millrats, is a clear indication of the symbolic significance of rats even in an urban culture. Dorson reports that aggressive rats constitute one of the recurrent “mill themes,” and he presents several “rat stories” told by the “millrats” (steelworkers). There are several tales of rats biting workers while they sleep or in retribution for not feeding them part of their lunch. One particularly crafty and aggressive rat was named “Vito the Rat.” One worker complains, “These damn rats, they’ll walk up to you like a fucking dog and look at you like, ‘Hey, buddy, you better give me some food or I’m going to bite your ass off’” (Dorson 1981:88, 94—100).
The experience Larry relates is not entirely unrealistic, then; rats are aggressive, are very bold about taking food, and do often grow to a fairly large size. Symbolically, at the level of the experience itself, the rat is an obnoxious pest known to bite people seemingly without provocation. The rat as presented in the story draws to it not only this cultural notion of the rat as a proven molester, but also the more individualized projection of the storyteller’s own anxieties about himself. In psychology, as Alan Dundes suggests,
projection refers to the tendency to attribute to another person or to the environment what is actually within oneself. What is attributed is usually some internal impulse or feeling which is painful, unacceptable, or taboo. The ascription of feelings and qualities of one’s own to a source in the external world is accomplished without the individual’s being consciously aware of the fact. The individual perceives the external object as possessing the taboo tendencies without recognizing their source in himself. (1980a:37)
You will recall that within the collective symbolism of the rat, there is an association between the rat and the phallus as a dangerous or repugnant object. Though Cirlot does not mention who (or more specifically, which sex) is perceiving the phallus as dangerous or repugnant, I am suggesting that in this case the internal symbolism is from the male viewpoint. Symbolically, Koo-Nar is a projective animation of male sexuality—which the storyteller has been taught from childhood is dangerous, evil, aggressive, and repugnant. By creating a narrative out of the experience of staying in the wintry shack and encountering the rat, the storyteller exploits the potential of the personal narrative to its fullest. He chooses a symbol and a plot and uses them to display and evaluate ideas he would find too disturbing to deal with directly. In this case, it would seem that before his self-imposed period of separation and initiation in the garage, he had not yet faced up to what his own sexuality meant to him or how it was to be integrated into his sense of himself as a person, and especially as a man.
The experience of staying in the garage is obviously a significant part of his effort to determine what it means to be a man. His story of the experience is a major part of this effort at definition. Koo-Nar symbolizes all of those negative aspects of sexuality typically learned in childhood and adolescence. It is contingent upon members of either sex to contemplate their own sexuality at some point, usually when it becomes an increasingly important part of their social relationships. This is why other cultures have formalized periods of initiation. Western culture relegates such learning to an informal and personal level, where it often remains unexamined and psychologically forbidding. American culture teaches a young person that sex is dangerous and repugnant. Because an orgasmic-level response (in either sex) is finally compelling and uncontrolled, eventually a young man perceives his own sexual experience as a response that escapes his rational control and instead moves him to its own demands. With these two forces in juxtaposition, a young adult can hardly learn (as have the poets, so they say) that sexuality is the surest path to ecstasy. He will learn instead that his body betrays him by tying him to an evil power he can neither control nor escape. As Benedict warns, many American adults fail to “unlearn” the wickedness and dangerousness of sex. If sex is wicked, an orgasmic-level response is uncontrolled wickedness. The menacing rat with its unprovoked aggression easily embodies all that is repugnant in that view of male sexuality our culture teaches its children.
The rat in the story is a projection, a “noxious bastard” charged with all the nastiness the storyteller had been taught to associate with his own sexuality. Briefly, he creates a sense of the terror the rat inspires in his image of Koo-Nar frantically running through the maze of open-coil bed springs, on up through the innersprings to the top mattress, where Larry lay listening: (from version #2) “And I heard that son-of-a-bitch runnin’ around down there in my bed springs, and he was going berserk ‘cause he was hungry!” Sexual desire is often described as a “hunger.”8 Koo-Nar’s hunger has in it a desperate, demanding quality. The sexuality Koo-Nar represents is dangerous because it seeks to inflict injury and pain; it is repugnant because it exhibits the unthinking coarseness and desperateness of animals in heat. If Koo-Nar symbolizes male sexuality, what intelligent and sensitive man would willingly embrace such an image of himself? It is the storyteller’s culture that has taught him to see his own sexuality negatively, that has taught him to project only a negative image onto whatever appropriate symbol his environment provides. The image he projects—the stereotype he accepts—is not true, is not “natural” or at least need not be. The storytelling is one way this value, this image, can be scrutinized and perhaps rejected or changed.
In an interesting reversal, the storyteller becomes the victim of his own projected stereotype of male sexuality. He casts himself empathically in the role of those most often subject to such animalistic attacks. Koo-Nar’s attack is not that of a lover, it is simply the brutal aggression that stereotypically characterizes male sexuality—all male sexuality, rats or men. And yet Koo-Nar is not entirely unappreciated. Larry admires his boldness, his great size, his insistent animal energy. Stereotypical male sexuality is not without its own attraction. Our culture tells us over and over again that what a woman really wants is a powerful, aggressive male who in his uncontrollable desire will ravish her and force her submission. Koo-Nar is a worthy adversary, but he is not a lover. Koo-Nar’s biting is in earnest. Male sexuality—as Koo-Nar symbolizes it—is a fighter’s skill and cunning, and the object of a sexual encounter is to defeat the partner. But a more positive and human sexuality that differs from this stereotype is what the storyteller intuitively comes to recognize as an attribute characteristic of a man who is confident of his manhood for other reasons. If a man can devise and pass his own test for what is truly important (to him) about being a man, then the necessity to behave as a rat does is gone. Koo-Nar is a symbol for the negative stereotype of masculinity. In choosing his own test of hardy endurance, Larry incidentally ensures that the rat will not control things. Instead it dies.
And Koo-Nar does die—both in Larry’s dream and, as he learns later, in actuality (and, of course, as we are presently aware, in the story). The wonderfully complex embedding of the death of Koo-Nar is one of the strokes of artistic genius in Larry’s story. We are told that Koo-Nar’s attack and demise take place in a dream, a “weird” dream, as Larry says: (from version #2) “I dreamed that Koo-Nar was in my bed and chewing on my leg ‘cause he was hungry. And I dreamed that it hurt so bad right on the calf of my leg where he was chewing that I reached down and tried to strangle him. And the tighter I’d squeeze, the tighter he’d bite, ya know? And I thought, my God, I could never last and I would just pass out, but I thought I was not dreamin’. But anyhoo, I dreamed that he finally died and relaxed his grip. And the curious part of it is, when you dream, everything’s in slow motion. And I dreamed that it just took a gargantuan effort to throw him out of the bed. But I finally got rid of the noxious bastard.” Like the medieval “dream vision,” Larry’s dream is presented as a narrative to be analyzed and evaluated—an allegory. Larry is conscious of this displacement himself, and he conveys his awareness to his listeners through metanarrational cues: some direct—”I thought I was not dreamin’”; some more subtle—the intentional mispronunciation of anyhow as a sign of his exasperation with his own efforts to describe his sensations in the twilight world of a “lucid” dream.
The dream provides a fruitful arena for Larry’s own analytic turn of mind. Larry knows that dreams are symbolic expressions. Folkloric awareness of the significance of dreams is in evidence from antiquity up to the present. “Freudian significance” of dreams is a popular allusion even among people who have never seen any of Freud’s works. People relate their dreams to others with an awareness of the depth of hidden meaning they carry. The most shocking motives and behaviors can be recognized and related in dreams because, after all, we all know that is what dreams are for. Dreams are puzzles. As Legman says of dirty jokes, tellers laugh hardest through jokes both they and their audience know are most autobiographical or most revealing (1975:22). But that is what jokes are for. Dreams are for interpretation; that is why we tell them. We expect dreams to be projective and symbolic. As Freud suggests, the more offensive or forbidden a notion is to the dreamer, the more likely it will be buried (censored) by layers of symbolism or distortion (1963:122-32). Like the medieval allegorist, people who tell their dreams recognize the dream as an acceptable frame for the analysis of behavior and ideas. This is the ancient tradition Larry draws upon in his embedded dream-tale of Koo-Nar’s attack and death.
Larry’s dream is interesting in part because it is a lucid dream, a dream in which the dreamer knows that he is dreaming. If he so chooses, Larry has every reason to believe that his dream is in fact a vivid and clearly remembered dream, a significant dream. It may even be as significant (at a symbolic level) as the dream-tale Andrew Lang reports from Chinese tradition as supporting his interpretation of Apollo as “Lord of Mice.” He cites a myth in which “the king of the rats” appears to a besieged monarch in his dream and assures him that he will have victory the next day. Rats gnaw the bowstrings of his enemies (motif K632), and the king triumphs in the battle (Lang : 112). In Larry’s case, the absence of evidence (no dead rat to be found) makes it difficult for Larry to decide whether his experience is real or simply a vivid dream suggested by Koo-Nar’s frantic noises in the springs below. William C. Dement reports that “because the dreams of REM sleep are ‘real’ to the dreamer, and because the human memory must sort and process an incredible amount of information, it is not unusual for a person who is presumably sane to ‘remember’ some dream detail as if it were a fact” (1976:85). At the time of the incident (or perhaps we should say, at the time of the dreaming), Larry is not at all sure whether the Koo-Nar of his dream is the real Koo-Nar simply being a vicious pest, or a necessarily symbolic Koo-Nar that behaves in symbolically significant ways in his dream.
It is clear, I think, that so long as Larry interprets the incident as a dream, he is willing to scrutinize the experience for symbolic significance as he would any other dream. In fact, in both versions he includes commentary on the nature of dreaming experiences (metadreamology?). He seems very aware of the proverbial slow motion phenomenon of dreams; in both versions, he ties the phenomenon to the difficulty in finally getting rid of the dead rat, or (symbolically) of ridding himself of his inhibiting stereotype. The embedding allows his symbolic use of even this traditional mental kinesics of dreams. And, in the manner of a tall tale, he offers a realistic explanation—the many blankets and snow—for the difficulty he has getting rid of the rat. Either explanation is plausible; he may be dreaming or he may be awake. Koo-Nar may really be chewing on Larry’s leg, or he may be a symbol in Larry’s dream, an embodiment of animalistic sexuality threatening to destroy him (or at least overpower him). The dream-story format allows Larry to focus on the rat as symbol—a symbol that lives in two worlds, one real (the garage) and the other imaginary (his dream).
Because the dream format allows Larry to admit (recognize) that Koo-Nar is a symbol, it provides a viewing screen on which he can project the many attributes of the symbol and thence sort out those that are acceptable or “true” to his rational mind from those that are not. In this embedded frame he can see the negative and false stereotype that Koo-Nar represents; he can see it at a further remove. Koo-Nar of the dream is only a mentifact, a stereotyped representation. He can be killed unceremoniously. The real Koo-Nar is symbolic as well, but he “personifies” the overall sense of personal sexuality. Surely this cannot be sacrificed; that would constitute psychological castration. The dream frame allows the negative stereotype of male sexuality to be thrown away. But, psychologically at least, the better parts of the complex symbol remain. The positive aspects in Larry’s understanding of his own sexuality are not sacrificed. Some of the “wicked” aspects of sexuality have been “unlearned,” and yet the essential positive force of sexuality has not been lost. If the rat symbolizes the phallus, then, in this complex narrative at least, it is the stereotype (the ghost image, the dream image) of the phallus that must be sacrificed, not the symbol itself—and certainly not the referent of the symbol.
So this is my interpretation of the symbol in the story, in the dream. When people recount dreams, they may take offense at the interpretation offered by the listener-interpreters who happen to veer too close to the truths that have been distorted by “dream-censorship,” or at least this is Freud’s explanation for the resistance he observed in his patients. Any interpretation of “symbols” in personal narratives will likely be viewed even more readily as offensive or wrong since the conscious mind and real behavior create the story, not the mysterious unconscious mind. But, I am not a psychologist. The interpretation I have presented is my responsibility and may very well say more (to you) about my concerns with male sexuality than Larry’s. The demands of the subjective paradigm can be onerous at times if accepted conscientiously. Still, I feel the foregoing lengthy discussion of the symbol is a necessary representation of how meaning evolves for the listener when a potentially symbolic object or action is perceived in the story. If you want to know what Koo-Nar really symbolizes, you will have to ask—not Larry (though I am sure he has an interpretation as well), but rather, yourself.
KN-12: Larry:And I didn’t find out that dude was for real till spring!
This one line abruptly closes the structural sequence. The remaining narrative material is in fact a series of combined flashbacks and evaluative commentary—very unusual in oral narratives (unless the story is told by Larry Scheiber, a most extraordinary teller). The internal evaluation in the material that follows this summary line is more in keeping with the evaluation segments Labov and Waletzky recognize in their study. And the flashbacks are reminiscent of the reverse unfolding that typically closes Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective stories. In this case, Larry expands the rest of his story into a detailed account of how he found out “that dude was for real.” However, the basic structure of the story as a whole can be seen as coming to a close in this very brief assertion that the real rat had indeed been killed. The implication—even before Larry’s elaboration—is that Koo-Nar had actually died from Larry’s stranglehold. Larry just did not know about it until spring. With the proof that he had killed Koo-Nar, Larry completes the procedural chain emanating from the initial structural function “Manhood to prove.” Using an adaptation of Claude Brémond’s structural methodology, I might chart the structure of the narrative as a series of internal functions that cumulatively serve the theme of proving masculinity (see Brémond 1970 and see my adaptation of his model in Stahl 1973).
When placed in juxtaposition, the story structure and the symbol of the rat seem to be parallel influences on Larry’s definition of masculinity (there are, of course, many other influences as well, but they are not apparent in this story). The structure (when completed) supports the attribute of “toughness” as an essential part of that definition. The symbol of the rat, on the other hand, would imply a repugnant, animallike sexuality if that symbol were allowed to “feed” the definition. However, when it is proved that Larry has killed Koo-Nar, this death allows Larry to claim toughness as his personal attribute and as an acceptable part of his definition, and it allows his denial of an animallike sexuality either in himself or in the definition of manliness he now chooses to accept.
It is not until spring and the discovery that Koo-Nar had in fact been killed that Larry can claim to have proven his toughness, and only then, it seems, is he ready to affirm toughness and deny animallike sexuality as parts of the definition he chooses for this important sex-role norm in his self-concept. Through the structure of the tale and the symbol of the rat, he has analyzed the stereotype of masculinity and decided (at least in respect to these two characteristics) what he accepts as part of his definition. The corpse of Koo-Nar is a visible sign that he has devised and met his own definition of manhood.
|KN-13:||Larry:||I was gonna to move into Momsy’s, see? Mom all this time had just been having a heart attack.|
|Larry:||Yeah, poor Mom, one day she said, “Scheib, for God’s sake, you’ve proved you can live through the winter and all that crap in a shack. Now come home!” I says, “OK, just for laughs.”|
Larry begins his explanation of how he discovered that Koo-Nar’s attack was “for real” by citing a consequence of the first of the last two structural functions. That is, he indicates that because he is satisfied that he has successfully endured the harsh living conditions for the duration of the winter season, he is ready to end the test and return to a more comfortable situation. Even so, he implies that part of his reason for ending the test is his sensitivity to the distress it causes his mother. “Momsy’s” heart attack is metaphoric, thank goodness; nevertheless, Larry effectively conveys the message that he would have stayed in the shack had not his mother been so concerned. Carol’s interjection—”Poor Mom!”—would seem to be a simple recognition and reinforcement of Larry’s filial concern. But in fact, the tone and the parallel modifier in Carol’s usual words of mock sympathy—“poor baby”—suggest that Carol knows that Larry is simply playing with a stereotypical notion, that he is using the traditional value of filial devotion as the basis for a metafolkloric game. Accomplished player that he is, Larry picks up on Carol’s bid (repeats her words as a metanarrational cue) and expands his use of the “devotion to mother” motif into an obviously projective dialogue in which his mother not only expresses her concern (“Now come home!”) but also articulates the primary theme of the story, the test to prove manhood.
In most folkloric or psychologically traditional narrations, it would be the father figure who pronounces judgment or rewards the hero when he passes the test. In the absence of a father, Larry’s mother must recognize that the test has been passed—but her pronouncement must not seem to carry the authority of judge (father) but rather the pride and concern of a mother. Larry accomplishes all of this through the dialogue he reports as the actual words of his mother. I would attribute the words to the text, the demands of the discourse. As Mary Louise Pratt suggests, textual criticism is built on the assumption “that in literary works, the range of deviations which will be construed as intentional is much larger” than in other speech contexts (1977:170). For me, Momsy’s dialogue is an artistic manipulation (intentional deviation) that effectively displays Larry’s own evaluation and articulation of the theme. Though the dialogue is not true to traditional expectations, it is a rhetorically effective projection of the theme out of the mouth of the hero and into the mouth of his mother.
This complicated rhetorical maneuvering moves the theme of manliness rapidly through all four possible levels of textuality—from metafictional (“Yeah, poor Mom, one day she said . . .”), to realistic (what his mother really said), to mythic (the combination of the mother/father motifs), and finally to ironic (“live through the winter and all that crap in a shack”).9 Larry (as dramatis persona) is free then to accept the intentionally misplaced commendation of his absent father (the only one who can really certify his manliness) and at the same time, free to superficially respond to his mother’s (stereotypical) maternal need to have him safely back home with her. With masculine pride obviously intact and duly recognized, Larry agrees to go home for Momsy’s sake—“just for laughs.” But, literary trickster that he is, Larry puts the words of the stereotypical tough guy into his own mouth and laughs at his own posturing along with us.
|KN-14:||Larry:||So I’m packing up all my stuff out of the old shack, see? And I pull all my blankets off the bed, which hadn’t been changed all winter [groans and laughter]. And when I got down to the bottom sheet—[lowers voice] there’s all this rat shit. And I thought, “Oh, my God!”|
|Carol:||Koo-Nar’d been living in your bed.|
|Larry:||All that time I’d been wondering what happened to Koo-Nar. Then I remembered that dream I had that night and I thought, “By God, I got him!” And I saw in a flash: he shit his drawers when I choked him to death. [Laughter]|
Two important literary strategies are set in motion with this segment of the storytelling: (1) the “Koo-Nar episode,” as Larry calls it in version #2 (prime intertexuality), is confirmed as a real event rather than a dream, and (2) the first segment of the tripartite evidence of Larry’s theory explaining the episode is presented. With regard to the first strategy, we must remember that Larry “didn’t find out that dude was for real till spring.” For nearly four months Larry has carried around in his head both the memory of the dream about Koo-Nar and a vague awareness that Koo-Nar had at some point stopped bothering him. He says, “All that time I’d been wondering what happened to Koo-Nar.” But apparently he does not make the connection between these two notions in his own mind. Instead the connection comes as a kind of revelation when he discovers the rat shit in his bed and questions how it could possibly have gotten there. In version #2, he details his thinking that brings about the revelation: “And I says, ‘Now wait a goddamn minute. This is too weird ‘cause I know there’s no rats in here.’ After the Koo-Nar episode and I had that bad dream, I bought rat poison and stuff ‘cause I’d been paid. And no one ever ate it, so I knew there were no rats. Well, anyway, here’s all these rat turds in the bottom of my bed, and I thought ‘Goddamn, that’s really strange—except—maybe Koo-Nar really did get in bed with me that night, and maybe I really did choke him.’“
In this burst of insight, the erstwhile dream is transformed into reality (for the dramatis persona anyway). The episode is no longer reversible; it is confirmed. As Susan Stewart contends, the distinction between reversible and nonreversible structures is “symptomatic of a more basic division between fictive and nonfictive events in social life. Nonfictive events are those that happen in social time, that ‘really did occur’ and cannot be ‘taken back.’ In contrast, fictive events are framed as reversible events. They can be taken back” (Stewart 1978:64). What had previously been perceived as occurring in “dream time” is now seen as happening in “social time.” Larry’s memory of slow-motion movements notwithstanding, the experience is confirmed as a real event, something concrete.
This revelation is of course an important part of Larry’s proof in his case for “Larry Scheiber’s manliness.” It is also significant (to me) as an indication of our dependence on physical evidence as proof of the reality we accept as true. If Larry’s dream had been only a dream, would its effect in the real world have been the same? Well, certainly there would not have been any four-month-old rat shit, a dried corpse, or a scar on Larry’s leg. Very likely he would not have told his dream; he might even have forgotten it entirely. In such an instance, the dream would have been, as David Bleich argues, “functionally nonexistent.” The dream would lack “negotiative presence”; it would mean (affect) nothing in the real world. Bleich compares an unexpressed interpretation of a piece of literature to an unremembered dream: “If it is forgotten, it might as well not have taken place; if it subsequently emerges in unexpected contexts, it has acquired a negotiative value” (1978:296). But how will we know when and if it “emerges” in a later context? It can emerge later only if it has already affected reality in the mind (subconscious if you wish) of the person who dreamed or interpreted but did not earlier articulate that mentifact. Unfortunately, however, Bleich is right: we will never know and subsequently use the reality of the dream or unvoiced interpretation until it gains negotiative presence through interaction with the physical world (the sad truth of Donne’s “Exstasie”). Larry must seek proof that the symbolic message he may in fact have already assimilated from his supposed dream is not idealism but reality. He does not feel free to accept his response to the dream as real or significant until he has proof that the incident was not merely a dream but rather an actual incident.
Once convinced that his dream experience was real, Larry considers it “tellable.”10 By implication at least, he pinpoints for us the moment in “real time” when he came to perceive the sequence of events as a story—that is, the day he moved out of Brown’s garage, in April, 1960. Much of the rest of his story is in fact metanarrational: he reconstructs how the story grew in his mind as he contemplated the significance of his dream-qua-actuality. Like the good mathematician that he is, Larry presents his thought process just as one would write out the proof in a mathematical exercise. His first theorem is: “he [Koo-Nar] shit his drawers when I choked him to death.” As Edward Sagarin tells us, “uncontrolled defecation is synonymous with fright,” and the expressions “shitting his pants” and “scared shitless” are proverbial images for this occasionally literal sign of extreme fright (Sagarin 1962:64). Larry skillfully plays on this traditional literal/figurative confusion and, incidentally it would seem, introduces a humorous personification through the imagery of a rat wearing “drawers” in the first place.
Though Larry would seem to be using the expression innocently enough, there is some significance in the fact that he has adopted an archaic form rather than the more typical “shit his pants.” “Pants” in American colloquial speech usually means “trousers” or “slacks.” Rarely is it used to indicate an undergarment worn by an adult male. So in the typical expression “pants” refers to the outside pants or trousers and is actually more a figurative than a literal referent (one hopes). In Larry’s expression, on the other hand, the “drawers” in question are definitely underwear, the garment that would in the literal representation of the expression receive the fright-inspired deposit. Since Koo-Nar did not really wear “drawers,” the shit is deposited instead in Larry’s sheets. And this is only fitting; the sheet is a kind of undergarment, especially as Larry describes it in the bed-stripping scene (version #2): “And I get down to where there’s nothing left in the room but the bed. And I pull all my big warm winter quilts off, [pause] and I get down to where it’s nothing but sheets. And I take off my top sheet, and down at the foot of the bed is—rat shit!” Short of personifying the bed, we can still appreciate the ludicrousness of a verbal striptease that ends with a bottom sheet full of rat shit.
The sheet is significant in other ways as well. Normally a reference to bedsheets would carry connotations of sexual play, as in Hamlet’s lament over his mother’s marriage to Claudius: “Oh most wicked speed to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets,” or as in the typical American version of Child #81 (Matty Groves or Little Musgrave) in which Lord Arlen asks of little Matty, who is in bed with the lord’s wife, “And how do you like my sheets?” The sheets on Larry’s bed, however, are not likely to inspire visions of “nights in white satin.” Carol and I both groan at his disclosure that the bed has not been changed all winter. Soiled sheets are, however, often assumed to be an aftermath of sexual activity (as in the feminist slogan “If you’re really liberated, you’ll make him sleep in the wet spot”). In fact, in many cultures a “bloodied” bedsheet is proudly displayed by the newlywed husband as a sign that his wife was a virgin (see, e.g., Brandes 1980:182). On the other hand, a grimy bedsheet with rat shit on it can suggest only the most uninviting scene for a sexual encounter, or perhaps more significantly the absence of sexual relations altogether (of course there is always “her” place). I would guess that the only “significant other” to have shared Larry’s bed in the garage is Koo-Nar, and it is Koo-Nar’s interaction with Larry that has soiled the sheet.
In keeping with Koo-Nar’s function as a symbol, the dirtiness of the sheet and especially the rat shit suggest the “dirt,” the sordidness, associated with sexuality. A symbolic corollary to Larry’s first theorem, then, would be that the vilest dirt of all is to be found in bed. Sex is repugnant and animalistic, or at least the accepted explanation of male sexuality defines a man as animalistic, an uncontrolled defiler in regard to sex. A definition of masculinity that includes a vicious sexuality is like a bed with rat shit in it. The bed should remain the suggestive but positive symbol it has always been, but the dirty sheets should be ritually removed.
|KN-15:||Larry:||And I got to looking around, and I pulled these mattresses. And between these mattresses and the parachute—which served as a wall between my MG and my bed—there lay KOO-NAR preserved by the cold!|
|Carol:||Poor baby, with your throttle marks on his very throat.|
|Larry:||Well, he was scrawny—and decimated—and he looked as though—he’d dried there.|
Larry’s second theorem is: “there lay KOO-NAR preserved by the cold!” The second step in his proof of the reality of the dream event is the discovery of the corpse of Koo-Nar. This is a triumphant recognition that he has, indeed, “kilt the dirty bastard.” In version #2, Larry actually reenacts the dream activity in his efforts to find the corpse: “And I thought, ‘Well, now where would he be?’ So I flop down on the mattress and I reconstruct the whole dream, see? And I think, ‘Ooh, Koo-Nar’s hurting my leg,’ so I reach down and I grab him, and I throw him out of the bed—in slow motion. And I think, ‘Aha! He would be over by the parachute which separated me from my MG!’ And by God, I pulled the old mattress back, and I looked down there, and there’s Koo-Nar! Ta-da! Stiffer’n a goddamn board!” As an engineer, Larry delights in solving problems, and his literary allusions or parodies are usually suggestive of the mystery genre. In this instance, he verbally (and at the time of the incident, physically) reconstructed the activities leading to the “crime” just as Sherlock Holmes would bring together the significant pieces of the mystery in an elucidating summary of the crimes he investigates.
Larry is careful to point out (in both versions) that Koo-Nar has been preserved by the cold. Not only is this a subtle reminder of the harsh conditions Larry has had to endure, but it is another clue in the mystery game—an explanation for the absence of any notable stench usually associated with decaying flesh. (Of course, if the rat shit didn’t bother him, olfactory sensitivity may not be one of Larry’s strong points.) Few things smell worse than a dead rat. The expression “to smell a rat”—meaning to suspect that something is wrong or that there is danger—implies that the rat is still alive and lurking about portending danger. It also implies that the rat has a characteristic bad odor, which we can assume is rendered insufferably rank through the rat’s demise. In the case of Koo-Nar, only the freezing temperature has inhibited the natural decay and telltale odor that would have alerted Larry to the presence of a dead rat in his near vicinity (beside his bed!). In version #2, Larry states clearly that the corpse is frozen: “This was like in April, but it was still colder’n a bitch out. And there he was, froze solid, and not a mark on him. I checked that dude over and over and over, and not a mark on him.”
Frozen or not, the notion of turning a dead rat over and over and over (three times!) in one’s hands for the sake of discovering any “marks” on it is pretty disgusting. Ostensibly Larry includes this comment as another minor bit of evidence that he did indeed kill the rat by strangling it—as opposed to hitting it or catching it in a trap, methods that would have left marks on the corpse. (Poison, the other “markless” possibility, is ruled out by the uneaten poison bait and the synchronicity of the corpse being just where Larry thought it would be from his reconstruction of the action.) It is interesting that in version #1, Carol suggests that the manner of death would result in marks on the corpse—“with your throttle marks on his very throat.” Some might question just what “throttle marks” might look like or perhaps even what implications the word throttle (as a noun) might suggest. My own response is a strong suspicion that Carol simply does not know what a dead rat would look like (nor does she probably want to know) and that she is instead offering an intertextual response tied to the personification of Koo-Nar (“poor baby”) in the story rather than a realistic response to some notion of the appearance of dead rats. On the other hand, Larry, the great outdoorsman, is used to handling dead animals. In version #2, with two males in his audience, Larry readily assumes that they will understand the significance of no marks on Koo-Nar. And John Fisher does in fact pick up on the implication right away; he says, “You killed him in your sleep”—obviously, otherwise he would have had marks on him. In Larry’s definition of masculinity, men are supposed to know the “lore of the woods.” Women, on the other hand, must have such things patiently described for them.
Larry does then describe for Carol and me the appearance of the dead rat: “Well, he was scrawny—and decimated—and he looked as though—he’d dried there.” At no point does Larry interject an aesthetic or personal judgment on the appearance of the dead rat. Instead the careful description conveys the symbolic implications of the rat’s appearance most effectively (the dashes indicate the deliberateness of his speech and the selective precision of his thought). Certainly, the description is realistic enough. In one sense, the description is an example of rhetorical naturalism, an imagery that evokes a deterministic world view, a sense of the inescapable animalism of the real world. Even now I feel a twinge of the sudden overwhelming sense of angst I experienced on hearing the description. The sensation was fleeting, thank goodness, but in retrospect it gives me pause. I sincerely believe that I would have experienced disgust rather than terror had I actually seen the dead rat. But in Larry’s description—the attributes of the corpse he has selected and oh so carefully matched to the increasingly charged words he speaks—there is the specter of terror. There is no sign of violence on the corpse; rather (as Larry describes it), there is evidence of a gradual wasting away, of shrinkage, of irreversible dehydration. Like the “thoroughly small and dry” atmosphere of T. S. Eliot’s poetry, Larry’s description bears a message of despair. The death of a rat would be of little consequence, but the corpse should bloat or be consumed by the vermin or scavengers we depend upon to save us from the terror of watching the life force—vital to us all—evaporate into the waste of dry air. One of the “folk ideas” Alan Dundes cites as fundamental in the web of ideas surrounding belief in the evil eye is the opposition of wet and dry: “Life depends upon liquid. . . . The consistent principle is that liquid means life while loss of liquid means death. ’Wet and Dry’ as an oppositional pair means life and death. Liquids are living; drying is dying!” (1980a: 101). Larry’s choice of words captures this notion perfectly. Koo-Nar, who had been “king of the rats,” the biggest, a worthy adversary, now lies a dried corpse. We despair of knowing where the life force has gone.
Within the story itself, however, the corpse of Koo-Nar is not so much a general symbol for unthinkable annihilation but rather a more restricted image of impotence. As in the haunting ballad “The Unquiet Grave,” death brings the “withered stalk,” and the lovers can no longer unite in love and life. But a healthy twenty-three-year-old man is not likely to be consumed with fears of death or impotence, nor, I think, would these be the concerns of the man in question even at age thirty-seven when he told the story. Rather, the fear, if there is one, is that a sexuality which is only self-centered and aggressive like the hunger of the rat will lead to a symbolic impotency, an absence of love. If liquid is the physical life force, its equivalent in the world of symbols is love. Both liquids and love are in the control of the living; they decide when either will be given or withheld. The animalistic aggression that cannot give but only destroys has no place among the symbols of the living. Koo-Nar must be found and recognized for what he is—the false lover who would have us believe that the stereotype of a hateful, competitive sexuality is to be tolerated in any definition of what it is to be a man.
|KN-16:||Larry:||But there that son-of-a-bitch was. And I thought, you know, “One plus one equals two.” And I looked down at my leg and there was a scar, a big hole. I’d never bothered to look at my leg before. Guys don’t look at their legs, you know. But that little son-of-a-bitch had gnawed me! And I got him, even in my sleep, which proves what a great hunter I really am!|
Theorem number three is: “I looked down at my leg and there was a scar, a big hole.” After pronouncing this third theorem, Larry summarizes the proof in reverse order:  “that little son-of-a bitch had gnawed me!  And I got him,  even in my sleep.” This summary very neatly brings the three-part explanatory or evaluative section of the story to a close. Larry then most obligingly metacomments on the theme of masculinity and the way in which these three theorems support the theme: he says, all of this “proves what a great hunter I really am!” The structure of the story has been summarized (by Larry) and its content evaluated. The primary function of the structure has been closed (earlier, when it was noted in the story that Koo-Nar had been killed), and the theme of that primary function has been reaffirmed through the evaluative expansion. Larry has proved his manhood; he is indeed a great hunter. Or more accurately, he is a great “outdoorsman,” the term Larry more often uses to describe himself. The hunting imagery is actually very limited in the story, and Larry knows this. Killing a rat by choking it to death is hardly a typical exploit of the “great hunter.” Larry calls himself a “great hunter” with clear irony; he intends that we see in contrast that he is indeed a rugged outdoorsman who has demonstrated his ability to endure the harshest of living conditions. The story of Koo-Nar is not a direct brag but rather a brag by implicature. And Larry, as usual, has managed to brag with a poet’s skill.
I dare not leave this final explanatory segment without comment on some of the details of this short section. One thing noticeable early in the discourse is Larry’s use of the proverbial “One plus one equals two” (see Taylor and Whiting 1958:270). This is a traditional proverb, and Larry, with his usual penchant for reflexivity, indicates through the discourse a metafolkloric comment on proverb usage. That is, by embedding the proverb in his statement as dramatis persona, he implies (as does any literary artist when he or she intentionally uses folklore) that this is a proper or typical context for the proverb. Larry in effect consciously points to a “law of use,” as Alan Dundes would name it, in regard to this particular proverb (1966:506). The proverb is a catch phrase for synchronicity; it is a sentence to be used when some meaningful information might be attained by bringing two otherwise separate facts together. Jung defines synchronicity as “a meaningful coincidence of two or more events, where something other than the probability of chance is involved” (1971:505). Larry recognizes the “meaningful coincidence” of his dream, the rat shit in his bed, and the corpse of Koo-Nar, and he draws a conclusion from these facts: the conviction that his leg must have been bitten by the rat. Even before he checks, he knows that “one plus one equals two.” He expects to find the scar, and he does.
And what about the scar? Larry claims that not only did he fail to notice the wound on his leg when it was freshly gnawed, but over the course of the four months after, he had not had occasion to notice the scar that replaced it. The reason for this inattention, he suggests, is that “guys don’t look at their legs, you know.” The “you know” suggests that Larry sees the involved characteristic as a generally acknowledged part of a standard masculine stereotype. Whether it is true or not that “guys don’t look at their legs,” some of the implications of his saying so are interesting to contemplate. For example, are there certain parts of their body men do spend a good bit of time looking at? Or is he implying instead that women, in contrast, do spend an inordinate amount of time looking at their own legs? Actually, the significance of his statement is in its representative role as a verbalization of sex-role stereotyping. As Stanley Brandes noted of the men of Andalusia, “Men are preoccupied with behaving in a masculine manner and with determining in whatever new situation might arise how their reactions should vary from women’s” (my emphasis) (1980:6). While it is likely true that women might more often look at their own legs, the point of Larry’s comment seems to be a clear assertion that he has behaved as a man should behave (according to the stereotype) and has not looked at his own legs (something women do and, therefore, something men must not do).
It is probably just as well that he did not look at his leg and discover the scar before. He might not have made the connection between the scar and Koo-Nar; rather, he might have devised some other likely explanation that would not carry the symbolic weight of the wound inflicted through Koo-Nar’s unprovoked and aggressive attack. Larry might do well once the mystery has been solved, however, to seriously look at the scar on his leg and contemplate its meaning. He does this in part by telling the story at all and by inviting his listeners to hear whatever resonances emanate from the story through their associative and interpretive understanding. The scar is a clear sign of Koo-Nar’s aggression. The symbolism of the attack is more complicated than it may initially appear. The symbol is not introduced to conflict with the theme of masculinity but rather to support it, and yet it is male sexuality that is being scrutinized through the symbol. Much of the seeming conflict stems from Koo-Nar’s role as a symbol for the culturally instilled notion of male sexuality. According to this notion, male sexuality is aggressive, competitive, domineering, chaotic, and animalistic; when frustrated or perverted, it becomes cruel and sadistic. The sad truth is, however, that the stereotype is accepted as reality, and it seems an impossible task to expose the layers of cultural dross for what they are and discover beneath them some sense of an essential and true personal sexuality. “Townsmen,” Stanley Brandes tells us, “vastly emphasize the differences between the sexes and believe that these differences are fundamentally biological rather than social in origin” (1980:6). Similarly, Sydney L. W. Mellen, in his provocative study The Evolution of Love (1981), discounts the intelligence and self-determinism of people generally and simply assumes that all “problematic” human behaviors are evolutionary survivals that have attained the status of biological determinants. He leaves little room for human self-enlightenment.
A symbol, such as Koo-Nar, presented in the context of a personal narrative is indicative of the storyteller’s and listener’s efforts to enlighten themselves. Larry could not easily tell (and I for one could not comfortably listen to) a confession of the fears and concerns symbolized by Koo-Nar’s attack. Instead the symbolism muffles these concerns that are unspeakable or unhearable. Koo-Nar’s attack is a brutal, unthinking, and self-serving rape provoked only by the rat’s own hunger. In the world of symbols, Koo-Nar acts as man fears he acts; culture has taught us that male sexuality is by nature aggressive and brutal and self-serving. In his story and in his dream, the storyteller is the victim of Koo-Nar’s attack; he is the woman or the passive homosexual partner that suffers the aggression of the stereotypical male. Through the symbolization he gains empathy with the victims of such attacks. When he gets Koo-Nar, he “kills” the stereotype, or at least that part of the stereotype the rat symbolizes. This does not mean that Larry is now willingly a victim or that he has learned to enjoy the status of a victim. He has indeed been momentarily “feminized” (the “hole” in his leg is too obvious a symbol) or perhaps forced into the role of an unwilling fellator (the choking scene and the later-discovered emission) or perhaps fellatrice (after all, it is his leg the rat is “gnawing”). Basic to any of these interpretations is the notion of victimization. He has learned that the subject of a stereotypical male attack is always victimized, overpowered, and “put down” (made to appear and feel inferior).
There is still a dilemma in the symbol, however. Empathy with the victims of aggression can easily turn to a defensive fear or dread of that aggression if the aggression is seen as unavoidable, as biologically determined. Brandes says of the men in his study: “[They] are unafraid to joke about playing the phallic, ‘male’ part in homosexual intercourse. This role, at least, is consistent with masculine notions of genital assertion and aggression. It is, rather, the dread of assuming a feminine posture—of being the victim of sexual attack, instead of the perpetrator—that preoccupies the men of our town” (1980:6). In the typical closed cultural view, one may be either a victim or a perpetrator of sexual attack; there are no alternatives. No one wants to be “the woman”—even women don’t want the stereotypical role they have been handed. But, because women have for so long accepted their stereotype, as men have accepted theirs, the woman becomes a symbol herself—the perennial victim.
“Feminine” behaviors have no place in a definition of masculinity; they are immediately and obviously symbolic. Larry’s story of Koo-Nar does very little to tear down the stereotype of femininity. This is not the storyteller’s concern. Masculine and feminine are still polar opposites. As Alan Dundes’s study of the “crowing hen” reveals, our culture still teaches us that male is good (or at least powerful) and female is inferior (1980a: 160-75). But Larry does symbolically reassess the belief that men are inherently victimizers. He at least faces the specter of brutality in his own definition of manhood and decides that a man can be “tough”—a real outdoorsman—without being brutal. With some relief, I think, he “unlearns” the wickedness of male sexuality his culture has taught him. He no longer holds an exaggerated sense of his own aggression.
|KN-17:||Carol:||Right! However, it doesn’t prove where the name Koo-Nar came from.|
|Larry:||OK, all the time I lived with Koo-Nar before [pause] his demise, for some reason I just knew his name was Koo-Nar. Because he was the king of the rats, the biggest of all, and it just seemed fitting that I name him Koo-Nar.|
This last segment is what Labov and Waletzky would call the “coda”—“a functional device for returning the verbal perspective to the present moment” (1967:39). This particular coda demonstrates very nicely Carol’s complementary sense of intertexuality. In this case, she is the one who makes the metanarrational leap from Larry’s closing line—“which proves what a great hunter I really am”—back to the initial dialogue that introduced the subject of the story in the first place. She says, “However, it doesn’t prove where the name Koo-Nar came from.” With only mock seriousness, Carol charges Larry with having failed to do what he implied he would do by telling the story. Her comment is, I think, only a thinly veiled metafolklore; she is in fact ironically underlining our tacit awareness that the genre of the personal narrative has as its primary function the articulation and evaluation of fundamental values, themes, and symbols, rather than the superficial recounting of mundane information. Larry’s response, then, continues this double-entendre by saying, in effect, that he named the rat Koo-Nar because the rat became symbolic, because Larry came to see him as the king of the rats. Anything that significant must have a name, and one that Larry invests with meaning—Koo-Nar, the king of the rats. It is no small thing to conquer a king, especially one that has ruled so long (symbolically) in the minds of men. For Larry, at least, he rules no more.
Koo-Nar, King of the Rats: A Review
The foregoing analytic presentation or tutor text represents my attempt to describe how meaning evolves as the story is heard, or more precisely, how meaning evolves for me within “performance time.” Obviously a review is possible only after performance time has elapsed, only after the mind is no longer engaged in the complex task of grouping a vast range of associations into what Goffman calls “primary frameworks” (1974:21-39). A review is a kind of reflexivity not normally a part of (occurring within) performance time; rather, it is a critical activity enjoyed only after the performance is over—or the text read. The conventional concerns of literary or folkloristic analysis—style, form, theme, traditionality, symbolism, characterization, function, or effect—typically take into account the whole text or the completed performance. This review, then, will focus on such whole-text concerns as they help me organize my reflections on the story.
An outstanding feature of Larry’s story is its style. Usually something is said to have style whenever the implied evaluation is a positive one. That is, its style is good rather than bad. Beyond this simple usage-based definition, the question of what constitutes style is a philosophical one turning on speculations about artistic intent, authorial choice, or cultural taste. Bennison Gray (1969) suggests that as an analytic tool the notion of “style” is so ambiguous as to be useless. But he also recognizes with a sigh that critics go right on using the term anyway as though there were some sort of consensus on its meaning. The use of style to mean “good style” has popular backing at least. To say that Larry has style, then, is simply to suggest that his use of the language is both effective and entertaining or impressive. From this popular perspective, a storyteller who did not delight or impress his audience through his use of the language would be seen as lacking in style though his storytelling might be quite effective nonetheless. I think it is safe to say that Larry’s story (or Larry) has style. Certainly his frequent use of traditional or original metaphors is something we can appreciate in the style of the story. Traditional expressions—“out of circulation,” “run like hell,” “on peaceful terms,” “having a heart attack,” “One plus one equals two”—are probably still aesthetically effective at a subconscious level; it is their effectiveness that has made them traditional, yet they delight us precisely because Larry makes the extra effort to recall and use them, to linguistically connect with our store of shared culture. His original metaphors are even more effective because we must simultaneously recognize the figurative implications and visualize the literal referent without the aid of tradition. Such participation by the listener makes the expressions all the more enlightening and amusing.
As with his use of “One plus one equals two,” Larry’s use of traditional metaphor is sometimes quite complex and indicative of one overall characteristic feature that gives his style its literary (i.e., aesthetically pleasing) quality. Larry’s style is reflexive; often reflexivity takes the form of metafolkloric framing, as in the proverb above. Sometimes reflexivity is entirely rhetorical even with this supposed true story, as, for example, is the case with the finger-wiggling gesture and nonsense sounds Larry uses to convey a sense of the rat’s brazenness as he calmly eats his food in the glare of Larry’s flashlight. Larry often uses pauses and pitch and volume variations self-consciously. For example, it is usually apparent when Larry pauses in his narrative that what follows the pause is to be understood as one choice made from among a number of variously significant words and accompanying story-specific connotations. In the last segment of the text, Larry says, “All the time I lived with Koo-Nar before [pause] his demise. . . .” What follows the pause is very significant, and Larry wants his listeners to know that it is significant, i.e., that he has purposefully selected this word (demise) in an effort to counterbalance the violence of the attack, the violence of the strangulation, even the terror of death. Larry intends the restrained meaning of demise as an ironic contrast to the violence of the actual death itself.
We have seen many examples of what literary theorists call “intertexuality” in the story—from the irony in anachronistic word choice (“I was really cool!”) to obvious metanarrational cues (“Where in the hell was I anyhow?”). The plot of the narrative exhibits this intertexuality as well. In fact, the story’s form is clearly internally balanced in the same way that the classic detective story is a mirror-image presentation of action and ratiocination. This story, at least, fits very closely the formula John Cawelti abstracts from the classic detective texts. In those texts, as in the story of Koo-Nar, “the balance between inquiry and action is the most immediate expression of a larger and more general problem of proportion in the classical formula that derives from a fundamental tension in the structure of the story” (Cawelti 1976:108). On one hand, the order of actions and the order of “proofs” are internally balanced. On the other hand, the violence and disturbing symbolism associated with the rat seem uncontrolled and must be “contained” within the story through appropriate reflexive cues, as when Larry is about to discover the corpse of Koo-Nar but pauses to explain that the parachute served as a wall between his MG and his bed, or as in the light irony of his comment just after relating the death of Koo-Nar—“he just succumbed—as rats do when one shuts off their air.”
Normally, style and form or structure would be the only superficial features to receive much attention in the discussion of a narrative text. Setting, for example, is usually perceived as significant only in regional literature or foreign texts. In Larry’s story, it is not the cultural setting that is primarily significant but rather the symbolic dwelling itself. The old garage Larry chooses as his residence is symbolic not simply in its physical properties (as suggested earlier) but also in its function as a place of isolation. As in many cultures, young adults in America find that late adolescence is a time of separation from the family of their childhood. They go to college, join the service, take a job, or get married. Whereas other cultures often have recognized rituals that make this kind of transition tolerable, our culture has very little beyond the celebration of marriage, and that is only a short rite, symbolic rather than preparatory. For Larry, the transition from hometown boy to paratrooper was a sudden change, aided perhaps by the severe discipline of military boot camp. When he returned to Huntington, he needed a period of transition and some symbolic activity that would help him assess his three-year experience and determine what his new role should be. This liminal or transition period was not demanded or even encouraged by his culture; rather, he chose to separate himself awhile longer from the community he would eventually rejoin.11 He chose the old garage both for its symbolism as a place of isolation and for its functional role as a place for testing, a proving ground for manly toughness.
The primary theme of the story is this drive to demonstrate to himself his manhood. Sexual identification is necessarily a part of anyone’s self-image, but for Larry, sexual identity and self-identity seem almost synonymous. Possibly this is astonishing only to a woman—as Simone de Beauvoir said, “The truth is that man today represents the positive and the neutral—that is to say, the male and the human being—whereas woman is only the negative, the female. Whenever she behaves as a human being, she is declared to be identifying herself with the male” (1961:383). For Larry, the major premise of this syllogism is taken at face value, and in this story that is all that really matters. To prove himself an acceptable person—to formulate a positive self-image—he must prove himself a man. The need to prove his masculinity was perhaps to some extent a carry-over from his days in the service. Paratroopers, like the Marines, are reputed to be daring and proudly virile. I would suppose that three years among such men would seal the equation between selfhood and manhood. And it would likely keep every man in constant dread of appearing anything but absolutely masculine. To Larry’s credit, his initial decision to stay in the shack, though growing out of a desire to prove his manhood, represents as well his willingness and determination to test not just himself but also his own definition of masculinity.
When Larry moved into the garage, his definition of masculinity was drawn from his culture and perhaps exaggerated by special indoctrination in the military. His experience in the garage allowed him to examine on one level the attitude of toughness and its place in his definition, and on another level—the symbolic—the animalistic trait of aggression, especially as it is traditionally associated with male sexuality. By telling the story of Koo-Nar, Larry reevaluates these attributes and slowly builds his own foundation for a personal ethic—one that accepts toughness as necessary in the definition of masculinity but one that questions the place of vicious aggression in the definition, and more particularly in actual social relationships. Koo-Nar teaches him what it is like to be a victim of unthinking aggression. Though he pointedly does not identify with women, he does come to emphathize with what he feels must be their response to the animalistic sexuality he had assumed was his by nature. He seems to recognize the stereotype for what it is and to straight away dispatch it—as he does the rat—as something unsuitable in the definition of a man. In Larry’s world view, fuck should be a most objectionable word to a woman. It is only among other men that he need maintain the illusion that masculinity necessarily implies an animalistic sexual appetite. The stereotype is still there in the real world—it is a powerful “folk fallacy,” as Alan Dundes would name it—but there is no need to accept it as part of his personal self-image.12 Instead, toughness—which comes only through proving himself to himself—is the attribute he chooses to wear as his badge of manliness.
Traditionally, literary criticism would ask what the “effect” of a piece of literature was. Like the function of an item of folklore, the effect of an item of literature was perceived as discoverable, as something that could be detected and articulated after careful observation. David Bleich, more forcefully than any other reader-response critic, has argued that the reader must not suppress his or her own personal response, as that is the only effect the reader can really know. My interpretation of Larry’s story is unavoidably my own. Symbols, especially, evoke a “multivalency of meanings.” The meanings I hear in the story I have already expressed. The effects of the story on me would, in another era, have been presented as “latent functions” perhaps, rather than as my personal responses (see Merton 1949:73-139). The first effect is relief (literary critics would say “catharsis,” but that might too readily bring to mind the rat’s unfortunate indisposition). It is a great relief to discover that the rat has died, especially given the interpretation of the symbol I have suggested. In the complex web of projection that must attend any such interpretation, it is likely that at least one strand is traceable to my own ambivalence relative to the stereotype of male sexuality. It is, after all, women who are traditionally depicted as afraid of mice and rats. As listener, I may be the one who projects onto Koo-Nar the negative stereotype of animalistic aggression. But that is something for you, the critics of this critique, to ponder.
A second effect of the story (and this would translate into a latent function) is sincere admiration for Larry. It is not so much that I myself would define as masculine, or even “tough,” someone who endured the wintry conditions Larry did. And I certainly would not expect anyone who considers himself a man to pass such a test, or any test, to prove his masculinity. But, the question of masculinity aside, I do admire someone who seeks out meaningful adventures—someone who, like Thoreau, experiments with his own living and evaluates his experience in an effort to learn what is most fundamental and essential to the human condition. In short, I admire Larry’s more serious mask as the natural philosopher. Even more, however, I admire and am moved by his talent as a storyteller. Freud claims that in our modern culture, only the artist retains the “omnipotence of thought” that yields magic (1950:90). For the brief time that Larry tells his story, all his abundant energy and zest for the outdoors enter into the play of his literary artistry, and he creates the world of the story before my eyes, almost in my mind—like the shaman.