A REVIEW OF MARCUS AND ME BY JAY EDSON
Marcus and Me by Jay Edson was published by Mind Glow Media, New York in 2008.
A Boy's Own Bomination
Here's a challenge: write a story about the meaning of life, love, religion, sex and gender -- and have the story narrated by a fourteen-year-old boy remembering his eleven-year-old self. Oh, and set it all in the context of a very moving love story. It might sound difficult, but it's not. Read Jay Edson's Marcus and Me and you'll see it's really quite easy.
The voice of the narrator, Franklin Hubbard, achieves a verisimilitude it would be difficult to surpass. There's no artistic licence of the sort you'll find in Jack Robinson's Teardrops on My Drum, or Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. What you get is a real boy telling his story in his own words. Franklin's thought processes, his occasional odd leaps of logic, rash judgements based on inexperience, and random unexpectedly deep insights, ring very true. And the way he begins the long process of maturation under the loving mentorship of Marcus Bohm is superbly naturalistic in its unfolding.
Marcus and Meis a classic road trip story, set in 1967 in the months leading up to the October 21 anti-war March on the Pentagon. Eleven-year-old Franklin is keen to escape the Lutheran Children's Home of Maine -- a place more boring than abusive, but, for him, a place devoid of friendship or love. He just doesn't fit in. So when a chance suddenly appears to hitch a ride with a "funny looking guy sitting at a table all by himself", he takes it, and all the rest is...Mystery.
An early scene on this road trip shows just how subtle Edson's rendering of emotions can be while staying true to a young boy's voice. Camping in the woods, Franklin uses his new slingshot to kill a squirrel. Delighted, while also slightly sickened, by his hunting adventure, he proudly shows off his kill to Marcus. Marcus is stricken by the act while being honest enough, as a meat-eater, to admit its place in nature. The way Edson describes the boy's wandering off to try and work through his complicated flux of emotions was like a perfectly executed tight-wire act. Puny rational words were shown ultimately to be of little use and Franklin's seeking out Marcus in his sleeping bag that night, needing simply to be close to him, was a masterful moment in a wonderfully developing love story.
The great conflict at the heart of Franklin's journey is that between his Lutheran upbringing and the hippie world he is tentatively entering, with all its strange new forms of spirituality. I admired Franklin's initially stubborn refusal to ditch his Lutheranism for what was a blatantly more attractive, welcoming and loving world view. One should always be very cautious in making radical alterations to one's belief system. Franklin was determined to work things out for himself before making any commitments, and good on him. Although it has to be said, the boy's attempts to analyse Marcus using the paltry Home-taught tools at his disposal were often hilarious and occasionally frightening.
Marcus was, according to Franklin's wrote-learned code, a hippie, a loony, a commie, a pervert, and a devil worshipper. A veritable Lutheran who's who of horror and heresy. "Bomination" was the only word Franklin had to describe such matters. But Marcus was also about the nicest guy a boy could meet. He was Franklin's first real friend, the first person to love him unreservedly, and the first person the boy himself had fallen in love with. A hell of a dilemma, as the Christians might say. Bominations piling upon bominations.
So as Franklin experienced an increasingly sexual response to Marcus's physical presence, the bomination problem became acute. Fortunately, at times like this, Franklin's intuitive connection to old wisdom and mythology came to his rescue. The comically subversive chats Franklin had with his butt and Mr. Dick rival the Winnebago Trickster's hilarious verbal set-to's with his "brother-anus" and "brother-penis". Thankfully the outcome for Franklin was far more agreeable than for the burnt stick-wielding Trickster! Eventually, finding sex with Marcus such a positive and enjoyable experience, the Lutheran in Franklin began channelling St. Augustine, promising the Lord his complete chastity...but not yet.
Even more central to Franklin's hectic self-discovery trip was his speculative Shamanic awakening. This really was beautifully done. From Franklin's early other-worldly travels in Super-Hero land, to his discovered attraction to the symbols of transgenderism, the spiritual possibilities of Shamanism was well limned. Trying to revivify these ancient arts can all too easily become hokey new-age embarrassments. But Edson never loses the pragmatic, real-world element, even when dealing with ineffable experiences like Oneness. In fact, having a thoughtful, honest fourteen-year-old boy describe and ponder such things may well be a superior approach. Get in before the modern layers of irony and knowingness flatten all.
Perhaps the most brilliantly realised aspect of Franklin's budding Shamanism was the way he embodied important aspects of cultural angst. Franklin's vexed soul was caught at the crossroads where fifties conformism clashed with sixties visionary expansion. Safety of the known versus a leap of new-fangled faith. And I think Franklin's Lutheran moral code spoke to an important point. It's not that we suddenly discovered that Christianity was all a big mistake, but that it no longer had any spiritual vitality left. The fifties generation craved a safe society in which to recover from the horror of two world wars. Christian morality provided the structure for that. But the ease with which the hippies blew that house down showed that the moral structure had no real religious depth. As with Franklin's lived experience, it was all rules and no sustenance. Jesus did warn of trying to plant seeds in too-shallow soil. So Eastern and pagan religions rushed in like fresh air into a stale vacuum. But, tragically, this expanded spiritual vision was the shortest-lived aspect of the sixties revolution. And Marcus and Me provides some insightful clues as to why.
During their travels, Franklin is twice separated from Marcus and he has three significant encounters with strangers. On the first occasion, after running away to San Francisco, he hides in a department store overnight. Discovered there by Lloyd the security guard, Franklin fears the worst but meets with a decent, ordinary working man who is prepared to take a chance and help the boy find his way back to Marcus. It's worth noting that it's extremely unlikely the same man would risk such an act of kindness today, the State having well and truly scorched that level of independent agency amongst its clients.
On the second occasion, Franklin meets with a trio of hippie fellow-travellers in Washington. At this moment it's vitally important for the boy to find Marcus, a fact made obvious to the hippies. But they remain blissfully ignorant of his plight, preferring instead to share a joint with the youngster before drifting off with the morning vibe. Soon after, Franklin meets a married couple -- again, decent folk from middle America -- who give him a lift but, concerned at the boy's obviously drug-affected state, inform the police. From there, things don't go well.
These three meetings form a sixties parable. Franklin's own people let him down -- let the side down; the people charged with building a new society gave the State a free kick -- and the ever-vigilant State never lets a chance go by. Drugs were part of the problem. As Marcus astutely said, "hippies take drugs...to try to get the prison out of their heads. This might be necessary, but then they keep taking those drugs and take too many. They keep taking them after they learn what the drugs have to teach. Once you break free you have to keep a clear head."
Along with the drug problem was the underlying delusion that has beset Romantic movements from the start: the belief that Nature is good and Society the source of all ills. Marcus doesn't fall for this stubbornly seductive illusion, and his appreciation of Nature's good-and-evil totality in fact saves the boy's life in one very dramatic scene. The novel on several occasions takes a moment to point out the sharp teeth behind the Great Mother's beneficent smile. But the hippie movement overall wasn't quite so clear-headed, believing that sticking it to the Man was enough to usher in the age of Aquarius. Lloyd the security guard was never going to buy into that.
Genuine visionaries like Marcus wanted to "mint a new coin." But it takes a hard-working village to build a mint. Straight after the breakout, the hippies needed to form a pragmatic alliance with Lloyd the security guard and even the married-couple police informers, whose intentions were never malicious. Shamans and mystics aren't a minority group, they're energised nodes plugged into the workaday social network. But the connections weren't made, the moment passed, and the nebulous new-way was ruthlessly shoved aside by the great clamouring mammon of our time: Political Ideology.
Pouring the religious instinct into politics is like pouring a leprous distilment into the ear of Denmark: tremendously agitating and hideously fatal. The usurpers of the true sixties radicals have even embraced transgenderism lately, with all the finesse of a Jacobin brandishing a new head on his pike, constantly shoving it in the face of unsuspecting citizens in the hope of provoking a thought-crime. It's enough to give a true Shaman the permanent willies.
So a new coin wasn't minted. Franklin, however, can at least be accorded the honour of having minted a fine new word: Bomination. From the moment he first uttered it, I took a strong liking to it. It shows Franklin's innate talent for subversion and regeneration.The full word "Abomination" draws on two millennia of fear and thundering over the gloomy hell-pit of sodomy. But strip the word of its stern, accusing "A" -- that scarlet letter, that head-bowing syllable of condemnation and prayerful repentance -- and suddenly the word reveals a comical underbelly. It now begins with a cheeky boy-plosive, a cupidic puff of freed energy; and from there the word never manages to regain a straight face, continuing on like a row of schoolboys unable to contain their giggles as the Master drones on with his lesson.
Alright, it ain't much. But as Jesus pointed out, sometimes all it takes is one little mustard seed.
Reviewed by Sam Hall for this website, 3 January 2018