‘He Spends His Evenings Like This’

This morning I finished ‘I Am Not Jackson Pollock’, a collection of short stories by John Haskell. I’ve drawn out my reading of it because I want to savor each one.

Each story is a collage of unconnected anecdotes from historical and fictional characters. They’re told as if they’re being presented to a child. This, for example, is about Orson Welles:

What he does is buy up boxes of plastic soldiers, gray or silver little men in uniform, and it doesn’t matter what war they were in, they’re all doing basically the same thing: throwing grenades, shooting guns, slicing something with a bayonet.

These are his people and what he does, he keeps a candle burning on the table and he sits at his table and takes a soldier and holds the little man over the candle flame, keeping the little arm or hand or gun close enough to the flame so that the plastic begins to thaw and melt and then drop, and he lets it drop; when it’s ready he lets a drop fall onto another soldier. He holds that other soldier under the first one and lets the drop of wet plastic fall on the breasts of the soldier below. He’s making breasts.

Very carefully, dripping the arms of the plastic men drop by drop, he creates the breast nodes, building up incrementally the rounded curve of the female breast. Each arm makes about one and a half breasts so sometimes he uses the head or the leg or a piece of artillery.

Parts like the head are hard to control, and sometimes from the head a drop falls and spreads over an entire chest. That’s not good. That recalcitrant soldier has to be thrown away. That soldier is a failure and he can’t stand failure.

Which is fine. He has plenty of raw material. On his table he’s arrayed a whole army of these little men, the finished ones.

To finish them he takes them by the heel and dips the body in a mayonnaise jar filled with creamy pink enamel paint that he’s devised for just this purpose, for the purpose of looking like flesh, or an approximation of flesh, the flesh of the skin of an actress or ballet dancer who resides in the back of his memory.

He spends his evenings like this, creating these figures, diminutive, naked-seeming and large-breasted, with traces of a molded soldier’s uniform beneath the painted flesh. They’re floating on his table, an ocean or sea of flesh-toned soldiers with protruding part like women. But not quite women.

This is bullshit, of course. Orson Welles never did this. Haskell’s just using him as a springboard to explore what it might have been like to be him for a few uneventful days at a time. Stories in the collection give similar treatment to  Janet Leigh, John Keats and Laika the space-dog, among others. All are similarly inaccurate and similarly gripping.

What I’m fascinated by isn’t just how the above excerpt manages to be funny and sad at the same time, but how the language sets such a sharp tone it’s almost a soundtrack. The constant repetition, the simplistic language, the technical descriptions, it reminds me of being read stories by my grandparents when I was a kid.

I’m not entirely sure that grandparents ever actually did that, or if I’m just importing memories from Friday-night sitcoms growing up, but either way, that’s what these stories made me think of. And I think that’s just what they were going for.

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