Max Yoho was my Kansas author for the
month for April, 2001, when I presented him as an old friend of at least
ten years of shared experience in the Washburn Writers' Group, Headwaters,
and the Kansas Authors Club, who had just published his own novel,
with his own Dancing Goat Press. October
4, 2002, Max won the top prize at the Kansas Authors Club state convention,
the Coffin Award, for best book published by a KAC member in the previous
two years for this novel.
I featured Max again, in December, 2002, when he published a second book, Tales from Comanche County, in which (as the back cover tells us) "an old man with a hilariously skewed education in history and religion looks back to summers spent listening to stories told on the front porch of his Uncle Jack's Comanche County, Kansas ranch. . . . Cattle rustler Leepy Danfer lies amoldering in his grave. The Emperor of China has come to grief. A soft-shell Oklahoman met his maker while riding a unicycle. Why? Yoho will tell you 'They just plain didn't get their dad-gum bob-waar over the crick before midnight.' " (Read Chapter 2 on-line on the Dancing Goat Press web site.)
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Since then Max has published two more
books, Felicia, These Fish Are Delicious, a collection of
Poems, Essays, and Short Stories, published in 2004, and The Moon
Butter Route, another novel, in 2006. All four of these books
were not only published by Max, and his wife, Carol, at the Dancing
Goat Press, a remarkable achievement in Topeka, Kansas, by itself,
but they have had the best experience marketing their books of any self-published
authors I have known, in good part because they have produced attractive
books and they work so hard at promoting them. And, while I have
fallen behind in keeping up with Max's progress here, Carol has kept things
up to date on their own web site (see the The
Dancing Goat Press), which, given Carol's web site expertise, I
can only envy.
As I am coming back to work on my own web site after neglecting it for most of a year, I thought I would try to catch up on Max (while we still both have time). So I have a plan which should enhance my summer's reading and writing experience. I will read, or re-read, one of these books each month and then do a brief review to add to this piece on Max as a Kansas author. I do this not just because of my long friendship with and respect for Max, but because I can't think of anything I am more likely to enjoy this summer, for Max may be the best comic writer at work in Kansas.
I first read the full text of The
Revival in the summer of 2001, shortly after it was published by
the Yohos' Dancing Goat Press, which they'd established for that
purpose--so six years ago. I still remember it best of all Max's
four books, because he had read passages from the book over a period of
years at writers' club meetings I attended as he was working on it, and
we had all talked about them, more as if they were short stories, which
was what we were usually discussing. The book has 33 chapters in 200 pages,
so the average chapter is 6 pages long, and many of them do still have
the episodic quality, and something of the independence, of short stories:
chapters where Edwin has a comic exchange involving another character seldom
showing up any place else in the novel, like Emmot Turner, the bully, Mew
Washington, the Voodoo Queen, or Mr. Krebs, the barber, or the chapter
relates a comic episode that might have come earlier or later without mattering
much, like the infantile paralysis brace, the shaving incident, the begging
incident, the snake bite. Each of these might be described as a comic
story with its own beginning, middle, and end.
But it is interesting to see how well Max has made a novel out of the pieces, taking pains to connect them with cross references, and employing certain of the natural unifying elements of the novel.
The most important of these is the first-person narrator. In the tradition of the picaresque novel--a sub-genre as old as the novel itself--the miscellaneous experiences all happen to the same central character, a picaro or "rogue," in this case Edwin J. Stamford, an 11-year-old boy growing up in the small Kansas town of Epic. Edwin sees everything from the special bias of a boy who thinks of himself as an outsider (what boy doesn't), required (by his mother) to play inside the rules he had nothing to do with making. He is an imaginative boy given to a weird range of similes--some right on,"she started whomping me with a rolled-up newspaper, like I was a dog who had peed on the carpet," some really from left field, "He didn't look so much like a common drunk as a man who had misplaced his belly button and wanted desperately to find it." He reports on everything from that special point of view, colored with these witty comments--and, perhaps most amazing of all, gets away with it, for which we can credit Max's characterization. The classic example of skill in charactrerizing an alienated boy's point of view in American literature is Huckleberry Finn, of course, as Don Coldsmith reminds us in the Introduction. Edwin is very different from Huckleberry Finn, but we get to know him pretty well, too, as half of what makes every episode comic is the way he sees it, and then describes it. And such a point of view is particularly effective in a satiric work, as almost everything Edwin looks at in family and community life--everything he sees any adult do--is likely to be ridiculous from his point of view.
There is a unity of time, as well, which the title addresses. It is revival week, when the Methodists and Holy Rollers are competing with each other to save the souls of Epic. Edwin manages to attend, and satirizes as hilariously ridiculous (with a lot of help from the author in providing details) both revival meetings. There's certainly not much of what passes for religion in this little town this week, or those crazy enough to participate, that we can admire once Edwin is done with them.
The other central characters, who are present in almost every chapter, are the three other members of the immediate family. As a boy that age is likely to be, he is at war with the two women in the family. The most obvious opponent in this family circle is his older sister, Irene the Rat--representing male-female sibling rivalry, which any boy with an older sister is likely to have known to some degree. Each takes pleasure in the other's misfortunes, of which there are plenty. The novel closes with a triumph for Edwin, as he gets secret pictures on his mother's camera of Irene being kissed by Dinwood Rook (a zombie). The author sets it up nicely so that the reader can imagine how surprised Irene (and her mother) will be as they dash out to the car to see these pictures as his dad brings them home just as the novel ends.
Edwin's mother performs the traditional function of trying to get a mischievous boy to get good grades in mathematics, behave himself in church, and get a haircut. Any kind of story he thinks of to tell her is fair game--and he comes up with some that would challenge Huck Finn.
His father, on the other hand, seems to be on his side, to sympathize when he gets into the kind of trouble we all can expect when "boys will be boys." He even contributes to Edwin's delinquency. To kill time in church, for example, he gets Edwin to join him in singing ridiculous parodies of the hymns, when no one else can tell what they are singing--so it's their inside joke. Many of us may have shared something of that experience, accommodating to church, after it no longer held our attention. It reminded me of the story told when I was that age of the young boy whose favorite hymn was the one about Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear. And they both entered into the speaking with other tongues at the Holy Roller meeting (his dad with "Cold meatloaf sandwich!" Edwin with "Booger eater!"). The reader can expect Edwin to grow up to be a lot like his dad, that they will always be on the same wave length, and will laugh at each other's jokes.
Again, like most boys of that age, Edwin needs a secret hiding place. I had one under one end of a bridge in Glendale, California, in the fifth grade--could hide out there, concealed from the world (until it was time to go home for dinner)--when I was a little older I had my own corner of a haymow on a farm in Oregon. And, as many boys have identified with a comic book hero, Edwin invents a special alter ego. He likes to think of himself as able to outsmart, or creep up on, or get even with, anyone, by assuming the character of Snake Shadow, who "sneered the sneer which had sent cold chills into the hearts of so many." The book is punctuated with short italicized passages describing Snake Shadow's activities--again pretty far out. Edwin becomes Snake Shadow most strongly as, from his hidden place in the haymow, he creeps up on Irene and her boy friend (Snake Shadow recognizes him as the ZOMBIE! and even stays in character as he runs to the house to get his mother's camera).
In the very last paragraph of the book, as the women are running to see the pictures, "Snake Shadow, feeling no compelling urge to view photographs, and with his life savings in his pocket, slid silently into the sunflowers. Using only his firm, undulating belly muscles to locomote him over the severe terrain, he followed his keen sense of direction toward the steamy jungles of Lithuania."
That may not be far enough, for--after Irene the Rat sees those pictures--the next chapter should be exciting, as she tries to get even, to turn a gloriously comic novel into a tragedy for Edwin. Even Snake Shadow recognizes her as "his mortal enemy . . . this mysterious fiend." It might be better for him to leave town, leaving Edwin to do combat with her, as he tries to explain things to his mother, and his dad is doubled up with laughter.
TALES FROM COMANCHE COUNTY:
The Peculiar Education of Max Freeman
I had a hard time adapting to Tales
from Comanche County--for two reasons, I think. Much of
the satire is directed at the academic world, which had questioned Max
Freeman's "Peculiar Education" under Uncle Jack as "historian" when he
entered college. In his first year at college, the history
department wouldn't acknowledge that first Kansas-Oklahoma baseball game
as legitimate research--giving Max his first academic rejection.
And when he wanted to do a senior paper entitled, "Concerning the
Early Use of Fried Snow and Icicle Biscuits in Comanche County, Kansas
and the Nutritional Value Thereof," he wasn't really "shown" the
door, he says--"I only caught a brief glimpse of it as I flew through it."
In this context, my sympathies tend to be with the history department more
than with the older narrator, for I was having much more trouble bringing
him into focus than I had with The Revival's Edwin--though
I also acknowledge my academic bias.
Then, in the opening tale, we meet Uncle Jack, the "tale teller" at his most off-the-wall, telling the story in Chapters 3-6 of the baseball game between the Kansas locals and a weird "amalgamation" of twelve Oklahomans who surprisingly showed up (in 1902) for the baseball game, insisting that the winning team have the right "to disembowel and dismember the losing team." This was worse than any stories I'd heard about Oklahoma football players in their "glory days" (when I was at the University of Kansas, preparing to be an academic). I actually liked the way that story started, though, when, after Uncle Jack's briar pipe set his haystack on fire, "he tried to beat out the fire with a wetted blanket, [and] inadvertently sent a smoke signal which challenged any or all Oklahomans to compete in a baseball game to prove, once and for all, whether the Oklahoma Territory, or the Great State of Kansas contained God's chosen people." That's within comic range for me.
But then what? Since only five players were available for the Kansas team, the rules were negotiated. They were "allowed to tie rattlesnakes to first and third base as basemen," and play three armadillos in the outfield. The cheering section of the Kansas team (young daughters under nine) were "allowed to fire small-bore rifles at any Oklahoma player between third base and home plate . . . but only between the knee and the ankle."
No one had brought a ball or bat. The Oklahoma pitcher had brought three nine-pound cannonballs from the Civil War Battle of the Wilderness, which the Kansans wouldn't allow him to pitch--but they would allow him to pitch porcupines, if he could find any. One of the Oklahomans ripped a post from Uncle Jack's fence as a bat, and Uncle Jack got a baseball-sized potato from the root cellar that Aunt Tildy insisted was meant for supper. Uncle Jack told her, "The Oklahoman has yet to be born who can hit any potato I pitch." The first Oklahoma batter demolished the potato with the fence post, so there was nothing to catch. He "trotted in an insolent manner from base to base, then paused and bit the head off the third-base rattlesnake. . . . a few of the local girls . . . fired their small-bore rifles at his legs, but did not even scratch him." Score: Oklahoma 1, Kansas 0.
Then someone did find a ball. The first Kansas batter failed to stop his swing, so the fence post "burst the catcher's head like a ripe pumpkin." And one of the girls shot too high and killed another Oklahoman just before he scored a second run. Then Uncle Jack hit a clean home run, but the pitcher caught him between third and home by bowling one of the nine-pound cannonballs he had by the mound, injuring Jack's ankle. Seeing this, Aunt Tildy took her soap paddle, and an apron pocket full of her three-day-old "Godamighty cocklebur biscuits," and started hitting them "like a Gatling gun . . . [or] grape shot at the Battle of the Wilderness," laying waste to the Oklahomans, who fled, "leaving their dead and wounded where they lay."
As with much in the book, this had happened long before young Max was born, let alone spending his summers as a boy on his great Uncle Jack and great Aunt Tildy's ranch in Comanche County listening to Uncle Jack's stories, or going to college, or looking back on all these things as an old man.
The cannonballs, fence post, rattlesnakes on first and third, pitching potatoes, and girls guarding home with .22 rifles, would have bothered me even more than it does now when I was young Max's age, living in Northern Illinois and keeping complete scorecards on the Chicago Cubs games I listened to on the radio every day during my own summer vacation. I thought, "Baseball is sacred. Just how crazy are this old man's tales going to be?" So I had that bias, too.
But, to shift to the positive, the advantage of beginning with this baseball story, told this way, is that it does establish how far out in left field Uncle Jack gets, and allows the author to then ring variations on that characterization, to temper it, in various ways, as the story progresses.
The setting is important, of course--and is real. Comanche County is about halfway between Wichita and Liberal, and Uncle Jack's ranch is right on the Oklahoma line: "it was just common sense to place the outhouse on the Oklahoma side of the state border." (okay) The closest town is Coldwater, almost 20 miles north of the Oklahoma line (today's population 771), and it was more than twice as far to a larger town.
"Sometimes it was so hot and dry that almost nothing grew." That, too, was real in the '30s, as we know. Their most abundant crop, "with the exception of rattlesnakes," was cockleburs (from which Aunt Tildy made her famous biscuits). So, even before the Depression years (in which Uncle Jack was telling young Max these stories), that was hard country--cattle country, evidently, but not prosperous cattle country, since, when Uncle Jack sold one steer, he "was reckoned to be one of the richest men in Comanche County." He also rides a horse and wears a tied-down .45 Smith and Wesson revolver (and sometimes shoots people)--so offers us something of a "wild West" image--which, given that place and time, seems legitimate.
This book is heavy on refrains, and one of the most frequently introduced is "Ad Astra Per Aspera" (To the Stars Through Difficulties). Uncle Jack "embraced the Kansas state motto . . . and if he found more 'Aspera' in life than 'Astra' he accepted that with good humor as a fact of life." Another refrain is that when Uncle Jack tells Max a whopper so big even Max doesn't seem to believe it, it's as if he's testing him to see if he has any Oklahoma blood--might someday "live in Tulsa or Stillwater--by choice."
By the time we get to Uncle Jack's claiming his wounded ankle as the last casualty of the Civil War Battle of the Wilderness, applying for a pension and hanging, from the "eaves of his front porch," a sign establishing his home as G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) post #1000, with himself as the only member, and Aunt Tildy as the Women's Auxiliary," and holding daily parades with his four children (of which little is to be heard) and the chickens, we are getting plot development. The evolution of the chicken coop from "Chinese Emperor's gold nugget storage vault" to "Battle of the Wilderness Museum," and (just to keep things insane enough) the selection of a jackrabbit (Lt. Jack O'Hare) as the second in command, are the kind of thing we can, by now, believe Uncle Jack would do, and the nonsense is developed in that spirit, as he writes letters (copies found in the attic much latter by Max) to get his pension, and buy a bugle and a shoe for the museum.
Then I had less trouble with another turn, the development of Uncle Jack as archaeologist, which begins with a letter from Mr. George F. Sternberg, "a kid in central Kansas," addressed to "the most educated citizen in the County" asking for help in looking for fossils from the past, "when Kansas was covered by an inland sea," (I have a friend who actually looks for such fossils), particularly the fossil of a fish with the fossil of another fish in its belly. Uncle Jack replies that he has had a "life-long interest in the study of science. . . . The focus of my research . . . is to determine if Oklahomus Erectus is going up or going down the evolutionary ladder." (again okay) Uncle Jack then finds (and finally offers to the Smithsonian Institution) five fossils, the two most interesting: "A mud turtle with what appears to be a fossilized celluloid collar button in its belly," and "A fish with a fossilized can of tuna in its belly (the label is missing)." When Mr. George F. Sternberg failed to be enthusiastic enough about Uncle Jack's discoveries to even answer his letters, he had thrown all his fossils into the well, but (another refrain) he will lower someone into the well on a rope (usually offers Aunt Tildy) if anyone wants to see his proof. Aunt Tildy says she wishes he hadn't thrown those things there, since the water now tastes different ("the tuna had doubtless gone bad"). The satire in this segment is much more to my taste, as I think of the discoveries of the Leakey family in Africa that get written up as cover stories in Time Magazine, with some pretty strange speculation presented as "revolutionizing" evolutionary science. And (a nice touch) the author has a picture of himself in the back of the book next to an exhibit of a Fish-Within-A-Fish at the Sternberg Museum, Hays, Kansas--so this kind of thing must be taken seriously, even by some academics.
Then I liked it when a few of the ridiculous things were presented from Max's own point of view, as a boy, as when he was nearly 13 and decided to take a drink of whiskey and then ride Old Dobbin into Coldwater to indulge in as much sin as he could for the $3 he had saved up. He visited a "house of ill-repute." The woman who answered the door asked "Well, what the hell do you want?" He thought, "What could I tell her? 'Please Ma'am, three dollars worth of sin?' Or . . . 'How much for a half pint of Ill-Repute?'" Here we are back closer to the point of view in The Revival.
And two of the craziest tales after the baseball game are brought into Comanche County by con men from outside--so make more sense. First there is the Chinaman Mr. Lee who arrives, "dressed in a sort of robe which was all green and silky and embroidered with dragons . . . [his hair] black and done in a pigtail," as the representative of the Emperor of China. He has gold, and is to build a railroad from China to Butterfly, Kansas (a town Mr. Lee establishes by buying the hotel and renaming the town), to transport rice to Comanche County and rattlesnakes and cockleburs to China. He buys all the local property for next to nothing, then starts selling sites for businesses along the railroad, and hiring workers. As soon as the railroad is built, he says, the Emperor of China will ship "thirteen boxcars of gold nuggets" for the development of these businesses.
"Uncle Jack designated the chicken coop 'The Comanche County Gold Nugget and Chicken Facility' and started nailing flattened tin cans all over the outside of it to make it impenetratable." Mr. Lee told him, "Unfortunately, your land seems to be about eleven miles south of adjacent." But "By Confucius' beard . . . for $200 we can build the railroad right past your ranch!" and winked, suggesting that "Even the most well-made gold nugget storage chicken coops spring leaks sometimes." Then "one day Mr. Lee was gone. . . . And with him . . . most of the milk and honey of the land called Comanche County." Now that was a crazy story with a purpose (I may have recently received some similar offers by email from Nigeria). I think of what the railroad did for Abilene, and how the railroad didn't come to Cottonwood when they expected it to--so there is something relevant to the time in this story--and Uncle Jack, while involved, is only indirectly the story teller.
Then there is John Smith who arrives by automobile at Uncle Jack's ranch with the story of the Great Albanian Potato Famine. After participating in the parade, listening to Uncle Jack's speech, and eating dinner (and praising all three), and then settled on the front porch, he tells them about the Albanian Potato Rebellion, which "began on exactly the same day as your Battle of the Wilderness!'" Picking up themes from Uncle Jack's speech, "'Oklahomans!' Mr. John Smith suddenly shouted 'Oklahomans and the minions of the Emperor of China! They rebelled my homeland, and in order to bring down the throne, destroyed almost every seed potato in the kingdom!" When he tells them, "I am descended from the hereditary line producing the Grand Viziers to the Queens of Albania for hundred of years," it reminds one of the con men the Duke and the King that travel with Huckleberry Finn, and his sales techniques are just as clearly exposed. He told them that "the soil of Comanche County . . . is unbelievably similar to that of Albania! Albanian potatoes would prosper and glorify here." He had "the last two Albanian seed-potatoes" in his black leather satchel. When Uncle Jack, in his enthusiasm, asked, "'How can we help?' Mr. John Smith leaned even closer and whispered, 'Grow these potatoes! You will save the good people of Albania and make your fortune at the same time.'"
Uncle Jack can have the seed-potatoes $13. But Lt. Jack O'Hare, the jack rabbit, hit Uncle Jack on his wounded ankle with his improved prosthetic leg, provoking him to fire the revolver he had drawn against the Oklahomans, almost hitting the con man, who smashed the seed-potatoes underfoot in his hurry to get out of there. Aunt Tildy had seen John Smith, when he first got out of his car, as "a preacher, a lawyer or a traveling salesman . . . maybe . . . like most men . . . a little bit of each." And Uncle Jack recognizes this, too, it seems, as he "granted Lt. Jack O'Hare his captaincy on the spot."
In the last half of the book, from Chaper 22 on, say, where Uncle Jack picks up Max in Coldwater on his horse, Dobbin, and they get caught in a hailstorm (red hail, from the color of the dust) after Uncle Jack "fired off three rounds into the belly of the ugly black cloud" chasing them. Uncle Jack does all he can to protect the boy, and the horse, from the hail in the open country, and we begin to get more of the picture of the relationship between Max and his aunt and uncle. We are more often presented with the picture of the three of them, and the storytelling, on the front porch we have on the cover of the book, with Uncle Jack telling his tales and Aunt Tildy constantly challenging them (and the ghost of Lt. Jack O'Hare between them). We get used to Uncle Jack meeting her challenges with any ridiculous thing that pops into his head that will satisfy her, so he can go on with the story, and you begin to see that that might have been the best summer recreation in Comanche County in the days before television (maybe even now).
I'm skipping over examples of some of the best word-play--usually between Uncle Jack and Aunt Tildy on the porch--and even some of the best stories, like Uncle Jack's quest for his sarcophagus (I think of the Hiawatha graveyard), and some of the adventures with Lt. Jack O'Hare, Thunder Johnson, and Lincoln Coosey. But I'll end on my most positive note.
Much of the story is told in letters found in the attic that Uncle Jack had written and received long before Max was born, and much is told to him by his Aunt Tildy, as she remembered it. Max says, "I really loved Aunt Tildy. I loved the yellowy silver of her hair. I loved the bulging viens on the backs of her tired old hands. I loved the way her gnarled old feet stood steadfastly and without questioning on the dust or mud of Comanche County." Now that's good history--must describe many farmers' wives across the midwest of the time (as Hamlin Garland's stories did). Uncle Jack has a standard comment about Aunt Tildy (another refrain), that she can "cut through the gristle and get to the gravy," which, in this case, seems to be right on. In my opinion, Aunt Tildy is the most believable character creation in the novel, and the one I like best (I even like her best in the baseball story), for she stands "steadfastly" in the middle ground--and acts.
Like many a wife, she supports her husband's foolishness, because it is important to him--and probably makes him more interesting. We accept that she "understood the workings of her husband's mind better than he did." She often calls Lt./Capt./Major/General Jack O'Hare a "bunny rabbit," but not to Uncle Jack, and thinks they were lucky to have had him, says "Lt. Jack O'Hare was a blessing." She learned to live with the rattlesnakes and the cockleburs. She says at one place that, "I don't spend much time worrying about Heaven or Hell. . . . I believe Purgatrory would about suit me. After spending most all of my life on this red-dust farm, I would prefer to stick with what I know."
Uncle Jack presents her as having special powers. She "could heal mysterious illnesses and also had the gift of prophesy," because she is "1/16 part witch," which, strangely enough, was why "most everything she cooked tasted like turnips" (which Max "knew from firsthand experience"), but we tend to see her special gift as knowing how to cut through the gristle and get to the gravy--knowing how to make the most of what she has to work with. She's a good woman.
At the end of the novel, after Max has been rejected as a historian, and after Uncle Jack and Aunt Tildy's deaths (her last words, "I did all I could"), he inherits the ranch--their four children having died off stage long before. Max still wears Uncle Jack's tied-down .45 Smith and Wesson revolver, but he no longer raises cattle. He sells rattlesnake venom to "an outfit in Chicago which buys all I can provide"--so seems to be doing well. Now, if he can just find a wife as supportive as Aunt Tildy . . .
It's hard to tell what the most important lesson Max learned from his "peculiar education" is, but it may be (the theme of this novel may be) that life is obviously more "Aspera" than "Astra,"--not just in Comanche County in the early years of the 20th century--and if you are reaching for (don't expect to touch) the Astra, the best way is to make up tales--and the crazier the better.
FELICIA, THESE FISH ARE DELICIOUS
Felicia, These Fish Are Delicious, is the exception among Max's books, a collection of poems, essays, and short stories, published in 2004. He says that the title doesn't refer to anything in the book--it was just a title he liked that he had always wanted to use (which sounds like Max, all right). Most of the items are short, a total of 59 in a book only 98 pages long, so averaging a little over a page and a half, and I know that they accumulated over the years (as my own sonnets did). And, whatever the form, what they have in common is that they show him as as weirdly witty and imaginative as he is in his novels.
Roughly the first half of the book is composed of poems, divided into three sets, and I thought I might offer you my favorite from each set (rather than three cat poems, as I might be tempted to do).
The day that
the orpanage visited the zoo,
The animals thought it was heaven.
The lion and the tiger each had two,
The boa constrictor had seven.
stepped on the fattest one!
The zoo keeper flew in a rage.
"You'd be more careful, you son of a gun,
If you had to clean up the cage."
The new little
cougar had more than enough,
Since cougars and kittens are ringers.
The children all thought him a cute bit of fluff,
So he filled up his tummy with fingers.
luck wasn't nearly so good,
And the thought of it still makes him rankle,
For all that he got was the runt of the lot,
And then just the foot and the ankle.
of all of the animal bunch,
Was Lorenzo the old alligator.
He managed to gobble a couple for lunch,
And lay back a couple for later.
the animals said, one and all,
That the visit had been quite a favor.
The helpings had all been regrettably small.
Still, you can't beat an orphan for flavor.
Cat Poems (I
thought of chosing a different poem here, for I like a couple of the others
as well, but still consider this the classic--though it is the longest, it is most in
the Robert Service ballad tradition Max honors--and I already had it typed out.)
The Ballad of Double-Ugly
Down in back of the slaughter house,Other Poems (Here, simple language, but nice details, present a picture of strong emotions.)
Where nobody goes at night,
The tough tom cats from south of the tracks
Go to lie and gamble and fight.
There was Tiger-Stripe Jake, whose last mistake,
Had cost him an eye, they say.
And Dopey Ed, who had led with his head
When he dueled with a Chevrolet.
There was Riverboat Jim. He was handsome and slim,
And he lived on the river in style.
There was Three-Toe'd McGill and Bad Breath Bill,
Who could wilt dandelions at one mile.
These were unpleasant toms, who would spit on their moms
And eat new-born bunnies for supper.
They were mean and unlovely, but one, Double-Ugly,
Was twenty times meaner and tougher.
The water he drank was slimy and stank,
And, at parties, he drank sour milk.
He slept in a half-keg of roofing nails
As some cats would sleep on silk.
He sharpened his claws on the lumber mill saws.
His teeth could go right to the bone.
And the fondest desire to which cats could aspire
Was to leave Double-Ugly alone.
Now, they played at a game which required one freight train,
And a courage that was cold deadly sober,
For they stood with their backs up against the steel tracks,
And let their brave tails hang over.
By the rules of the game, each cat would remain
'Til his nerve turned to rubber or jelly.
The bravest cat stayed, making jokes--unafraid.
The coward slinked off on his belly.
One October night, with the moon cold and bright,
These tough toms arched their backs.
They raised their paws and bared their claws
As a stranger came down the tracks.
He didn't strut or swing his butt
As macho cats sometimes do.
He just sauntered up and looked at each one,
And he looked them through and through.
He said, "My name is Alphonso,
And I'll ask you not to smile,
For I've whipped every cat who has laughed at that,
Down mile after mile after mile."
One smart young cat at the back of the pack
Snickered a soft, "Meow."
And a paw flashed out--and came right back--
With an ear and some eyebrow.
"Now, you know my name. Let's play the game.
That's why I came to town.
I'm here to say, and the odds I'll lay,
That I back you pussies down."
Double-Ugly had heard tough talk before.
He said, "Stranger, talk ain't tail.
If you came to town to play the game--
Just lay yours across that rail."
The 9:30 freight was running late
And word came down the wire
To hold it back, on the siding track,
To make way for the Omaha Flyer.
Old Number Eight wasn't built for speed;
It was built for pulling power.
But the Omaha Flyer had all it would need
To do ninety miles an hour.
Now, Double-Ugly had challenged that freight
On many a moonlight night,
But the whistle he heard wasn't Number Eight,
And he knew that things weren't right.
Nobody saw the shudder which went
Down Double-Ugly's tail.
Alphonso polished his long mustache
Like it might be up for sale.
The headlamp spun like a high-noon sun
On a Texas, August day.
And the rails sang, as the warning came,
That the Flyer was on the way.
Ninety miles an hour
And not cutting any slack--
While two brave cats stood side by side
With their tails across the track.
Some tell of seeing two comets that night,
Streaking low with fearsome wails.
But others say, "No, that's not right,
Because comets always have tails."
Thoughts and Essays
Close enough to feel
the fresh turned gravel
through my thin-soled shoes.
No fake grass to obscure
the reality of that bare hole.
Rifles popped and echoed.
A far away bugle gave us
the saddest of all Amens,
which chilled and chilled.
My father shuddered
and pulled me close.
Embarrassed and ashamed for him,
I watched teardrops leave his eyes
to fall on that ground
which was only beginning to show
its insatiable hunger
for the young men of our town.
Short Stories (I really like the longest, and last, of the 19 short stories, "The Yohos and
A Tribute to the Missouri River at Atchison, Kansas
I awake with the knowledge that today I will need my river.
Rowdy, muddy, whirlpool, swirlpool, try me if you dare, old river. Wake, knowing that these manicured lawns, which often please me, have beguiled me away from my river. This well-kept house. I clean it each day, perhaps to take my mind off my river.
You outrageous, dead-hog-floating, barn-stealing, bridge-bursting river. How dare you undercut my solid, comfortable banks? How dare you eddy into my dawn-mind to remind me that all I have gained is not worth half what I have lost! That today's tender veal is nothing compared to a pan of beans and bacon seasoned with Missouri River sand.
Oh, you dare, all right, you old Mama river. You could have had me a hundred times. Sinking sandbars, crackling ice. I waded you, walked on you, swam in you, pissed in you. Trusted you, knowing you would not hurt your boy.
I remember you in the moonlight, my bare belly on your mother-warm sandbar. By night you floated Indians in ghost-canoes. Will someone come later, and see a ghost-boy watching a ghost-Indian in a ghost-canoe?
I'll stop on my way home. If no one's around, I'll give Amelia a pat on her bronze butt. She always smiles. I'll tell her I checked on her puppy's grave. Proudly, I'll tell her you are out of your banks again--still raising hell, still causing trouble--still calling me home.
You can read these pieces aloud yourself, but really need to hear Max read them for best special effects; they are composed for the ear, in Max's voice. If you belong to a group, and live within driving range of Topeka, I recommend that you invite Max to come read you these, or another set (certainly a couple of his "cat poems") because--I speak from experience--that's where his reputation as a great story-teller comes from.
Martha stood on the rickety front porch, her belly bulging.
Listened, as the bridge gang foreman, cap in hand, eyes squinting into the sun, explained how Ellis had been a good hand, a hard worker.
It was no one's fault he said. Kept saying. No one's fault.
But Ellis was dead, and Martha stood on the rickety front porch, her belly bulging.
Ellis Jr. scooted around the porch. Little boy, not understanding the why of splinters.
Little boy, understanding nothing; his diaper golden with dried piss, his nose crusted with snot.
Donna would remember her father mostly as a shadow--a shadow with a sharp, bristly chin.
He had died. Something about a bridge.
And Martha stood on the rickety front porch, her belly bulging.
The bridge gang foreman pushed it hard. "No one's fault."
Hollyhocks and jonquils stood by, maybe listening, but not commenting.
Fists tight, knuckles white, Martha stood on the rickety front porch, her belly bulging.
THE MOON BUTTER ROUTE
The Moon Butter Route has
a lot in common with The Revival. It, too, is a short
novel (at 194 pages, six pages shorter than The Revival),
and with 44 chapters (a third more than The Revival) very
short chapters, 4½ pages on average (compared to
6)--so it, too, is an easy book to read. The central character, and
narrator, in each is a young boy living in Epic, Kansas, near the same
time (though neither is mentioned in the other's book), each with a weird
sense of humor reflected in malapropism, or off-the-wall metaphors--believable
enough in a boy that age. Both books have also been well received--have
sold well--and both have won a number of awards--some of the same ones,
in fact. The Revival won the Kansas Authors Club's
J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award (for the best book published by a
member in the previous two years) in 2002, and The Moon Butter Route
won it this year, 2007--the only time an author has won that award
a second time. Last year, Kansas State Librarian Christie Brandau
chose The Moon Butter Route as one of fifteen "2006 Kansas
Notable Books." In December 2006, the Kansas Center for the Book (at the
State Library) asked people in the Kansas book community: what is your
favorite book by Kansans or about Kansas? Both of these novels are in the
top dozen books on the list, published early this year (and which includes
In Cold Blood, Robert Day's
Cattle Drive, and L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of
Oz--so was competitive). Max was the only author with two
books listed among these top twelve. And both books have recently
been released as unabridged audio books by Books In Motion of Spokane,
But there are significant differences. While both start with an 11-year-old boy, The Revival only takes a week, and does not present Edwin J. Stamford as coming of age in that week. He is the more fully developed character, however, and more reminiscent of a Huckleberry Finn, as a kind of resident rascal. (I taught The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn every year back in the good old days, and the nature of the character development is a standard critical question--is the development an increasingly full knowledge on the reader's part of a static character--one who does not change--or is this the story of the coming-of-age of Huckleberry Finn? The first year I taught the book, one of the senior professors in the English Department at KU told some of us one day that the book might be called The Disillusionment of Huckleberry Finn, that it is a coming-of-age story. Later that same day, a sophomore student in my class convinced me that Huckleberry Finn does not change a bit, that he is just as disillusioned, with Pap and the widow, for example, at the beginning as at the end, and just as subject to the influence of Tom Sawyer's juvenile romantic ideas--that his stability provides the moral constant against which the values of almost all the other characters are satirized.) I think both Max's novels use the boy's point of view to satirize, but The Revival more profoundly so--it is much more revealing in pointing up the ridiculous in most religion, and in everyday family life, for example.
The Moon Butter Route is a coming-of-age story. Wally Eugene Gant's father has gotten the three goats he starts him out with, as Wally says, "to fill my summer and keep me out of reform school," and his mother "seemed determined to teach me responsibility." And that's what happens. He trades off (what's left of) his responsibility for the goats to work full time for the Strang Dairy, helping Mr. Strang on his delivery route--and he has an aptitude for that. He discovers that they are delivering milk, but, more importantly, in bottles painted white, home-made moonshine, (there was still prohibition in Kansas during WWII), and, most importantly, Ruby Stang's special by-product, Moon Butter--that no one can resist. He never tells his parents much about what is happening at work.
In a story about moonshiners, one would expect confrontations. First, with the revenuers, or G-men. Ruby runs two G-men off early (they show up looking for her brother, Howard, who is AWOL--moonshiners at this point, are a Kansas problem) with her yodeling--they are killed crashing into a "concrete W.P.A. bridge about a quarter of a mile from Ruby's place." Second, with local competition, the "Big Boy bootleggers in Buffalo County," like Armageddon's Booger Red, "the Big Cheese in the Little Balkans," from whom "Ruby bought most of the booze for her bootleggery . . . also the main ingredient for Ruby's Moon Butter." It was a trade off, however, because "Nobody bought more Moon Butter than Booger Red"--so he provided protection. And he accepted Wally as a friend from their first meeting. Third, the Big Boys from Chicago--in the tradition of Al Capone. The Chicago Hot Shots appear to be the biggest problem, determined to take over. They do, in fact (in Chapter 11, a fourth of the way through), shoot Booger Red in the back and put him in the hospital--after which Ruby moves into his bar with a shotgun. Sam Pullium is then put in charge of Booger Red's bar while he is recovering, so Ruby can go back to making Moon Butter. Then Mulespit's Tall DeCastro is shot and killed. Three Chicago Hot Shots (in a scene that reminds me of Hemingway's The Killers) come into Betcherass's Minor Angel Allegucci's and tell him they are buying his Pool and Snookertorium, "spread five twenty-dollar bills on the table and laid a revolver on top of them," saying "We just bought your business." Then Allegucci dumped a big kettle of steaming meatballs on their heads, and, on their way out, one of them shot off the end of his nose. At the high point of this confrontation, about halfway through the book, Sam Pullium is "found floating face down in a mine pit," and Booger's Emporium is shot full of holes. It seems "Them Chicago boys is taking over." I expected the climax to involve a major shootout with "them Chicago boys." There is little more of this, however: Betcherass's Pete Ziotky's "load of booze" was hijacked, but he escaped, "to visit his elderly parents in Nebraska." "Three days later Ruby was hijacked and kidnapped . . . when two Chicago Hot Shots forced her off the road and hustled her away." But she was back three days later, after having kneed the "fat Chicago man" so he'd "never be able to stand straight again" or "increase the population on the planet Earth," stomped the "skinny Chicago man" to death, and burned down the hideout by rubbing "those two hoodlums together like a Boy Scout would two sticks." So much for the Chicago Hot Shots--the whole community of customers for the Strang Dairy in the Little Balkans rise up against them. Wally is not much involved in any of this, however, is just learning his trade--though Sam Pullium "floating face down in a mine pit" does haunt his dreams for a while.
Basically, Ruby takes care of all confrontations. The major confrontation at the end of The Moon Butter Route does not involve the gangsters from Chicago, or the state revenuers over their illegal moonshine business, at all, but negotiations between Ruby Strang of Epic and Welsh Mary of Nineveh for control of the distribution of Moon Butter Pie in the Little Balkans--which again Ruby wins. So the relationship between Wally and Ruby is the most interesting one in the novel, I think, but I'm not sure how to characterize it. Perhaps she is closer to a surrogate father figure for Wally than a substitute mother, as she not only has faith in him and encourages his coming of age early (at 14?), but provides opportunity, hiring him, raising his wages regularly, giving him increased responsibility, until he is driving the truck himself, and, after he comes up with the idea of Moon Butter Pie, making him a partner. His own father is more caught up in the Tom Sawyer-like plan Wally got from reading Mark Twain, to build a steamboat to free whatever slaves were left (in the 1940s). As far as he and his best friend, Purdy Grundy, get is straightening "a half-gallon syrup bucket of bent and rusty nails" Mose Washington gives him toward building the steamboat--but his father enters into that, too, straightens a lot of nails. As Wally gets more involved with Ruby at the dairy, that project fades into the background, however. He feels a little guilty about that, but says at one point, "If I had had their address I would have just boxed up all the straightened nails and the steam whistle and mailed them off with a note telling those slaves to build their own damn steamboat." And later, about talking to his dad, "We didn't talk anymore about building a steamboat, because that plan was far behind me, was six weeks ago, when I was a kid." It seems he has pretty well come of age by then--and what his father doesn't know is just as well.
It seems safe to say that The Moon Butter Route has much the stronger beginning , for it is hard to beat the story of the "dancing" goat jumping up on--and peeing on--the top of the Packard hearse taking the remains of the Reverend Walter Walters to the graveyard, and Sam Pullium then pulling his "nickle-plated .32 caliber Iver Johnson revolver from beneath his vest" and shooting that goat dead, leaving it to bleed on the top of the Packard all the way to the graveyard. If the details with which this is handled won't get the reader into the story immediately, I would be very much surprised. The book has a happy ending, too, as Mr. Stang dies, Ruby Stang makes Wally a partner, buys a new red delivery truck (now that the war is over), and has "STANG and WALLY DAIRY" printed on the side in "clean white letters." After all, Wally had got the idea in a dream and helped Ruby develop her Moon Butter Pie, by recruiting Mew Washington, the Voodoo Queen, to actually bake the pies, and Loris Admuson, his "albingo" girlfriend, to help her. This Moon Butter Pie "would prove to be a gold mine" and make Wally, as a full partner, "the richest boy in Buffalo County"--a happy ending.
But for me, Edwin is the more memorable character, for not only is he is more fully developed, the other members of his family, his mother and father, and, particularly, "Irene the Rat," are as well. His alter ego, Snake Shadow, is also well developed. And the ending of The Revival is stronger, I believe, pitting Edwin against "Irene the Rat," both of whom we have come to know very well in a believable sibling relationship as we have met it from his point of view, and involving that alter ego, Snake Shadow, most strongly in the action this last time he is presented, as the one who goes back to the house for the camera, and then is off for "the steamy jungles of Lithuania," leaving Edwin himself to face whatever Irene decides to respond with--and the reader to guess what that will be. The more I think about it, that ending is almost perfect.
So I obviously like The Revival best of Max Yoho's four books, but I have no objection to others, some of whom know his work better than I do, coming to a different conclusion. I recognize some (but probably not all), of my own biases. I certainly have a very different sense of humor from Max--who lives in a far wilder imaginative country. As I remarked in considering Tales from Comanche County, I was not laughing out loud during the story of the baseball game that opens that novel. But when I talked to Max about this he said, "Well, I sure had a lot of fun writing that part." It's hard to deny a writer's impulse to follow that principle, particularly when his sense of humor is what most readers find most impressive about his work--almost every reviewer has praised the presence of this "laugh-out-loud" humor, and it's certainly likely to be there when any audience hears Max read the work himself--so he must know what he's doing.
And it is obvious that these four books, remarkably all published since 2001, in his retirement years, have made Max very well known, and among the most distinguished of current Kansas authors. Max has certainly earned it (The Dancing Goat Press web site lists roughly 100 personal appearances since the publication of The Revival).
I now think I know his work much better than I did at the beginning of the summer. But I have to admit that my fondest memories are still of Max reading those cat poems, and passages from The Revival back before he had published anything longer than a short story--and when we both were a lot younger. Like Bob Woodley, Gene DeGruson, and David Tangeman--to name three others among my favorite Kansas authors--I remember Max as one of the good ones from way back.
For more information about Max's books, including
how to order them, see The
Dancing Goat Press web site.