Travels with George in Search of Ben Hur and Other Meanderings
By Paul Ruffin
University of South Carolina Press, 2011
184 pages, $29.95
Reviewed by George Drew
In his preface to his book of essays, Travels with George in Search of Ben Hur and Other Meanderings, Paul Ruffin asserts “Nobody reads prefaces.” Perhaps not, but everyone should read these familiar and not-so-familiar essays. For one thing, they are full of Southern gusto—in their language, their characters and their storytelling. Often all of this is served up with a dose of humor.
All one has to do, for example, is read “Workshopping a Cowboy Poem,” which contains one of the funniest presentations of Yeats’ “The Second Coming” in recent memory, if ever. Or consider “Rats!” in which literal rats inhabiting Ruffin’s Texas Review Press office are talking to each other about the weird human creatures. Talk about a shift in perspective. And not to be forgotten is “Just Thinking About Shit,” a consideration of the word’s lineage and its plethora of applications through the centuries. It will leave any reader howling with delight at so much ado over…well, you know.
Except for “Rats!” these essays all appear in the first of three sections that comprise the book, “Things Literary, More or Less,” and indeed we do encounter such notables as George Garrett, Eudora Welty, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, Theodore Roethke and, perhaps most unforgettably, Ernest Hemingway. Ruffin is, after all, a much respected reader, critic, writer and editor so one would expect such familiarity, but these essays are about more than encounters with the literary; they are, always, about Paul Ruffin: his character, his roots, his Texas and Mississippi and Alabama, his personal history, and most tellingly, his honesty—expressed in a language that is both directly literal and metaphorically lyrical. Consider this passage, just one of innumerable examples:
The sparks from the fire sprang up into the stars, and the stars fell into the fire, and I was seeing six boys instead of three and two moons instead of one. After a few more swallows, which I managed to prop myself up for, everything went as black in my head as those night woods.
This excerpt is from “Drinking: A Truncated History,” the essay that leads off the second section, “On Likker and Guns.” It is excellent precisely because it demonstrates Ruffin’s lyrical and narrative honesty. In it he recounts his long history with alcohol and all the ramifications “likker” has had in his life. Certainly some of this is painful, for him and for all of his readers who recognize the common thread of drink and its effects in our own lives; how something so potentially injurious in so many ways is also elevated into a uniquely American mythos. Yet, couched in the downhome, ass-kicking colloquial stew Ruffin lays out, it also is hilarious. Read the last few pages of the essay and there will be no doubt. How one afternoon he got drop-dead drunk on Heaven Hill and his recounting of it has to be one of the funniest descriptions of a one-day binge ever written.
Humor, then, is one very large weapon in Ruffin’s literary armament. It sometimes bubbles gently and ironically, at others erupts. It is, demonstrably, potent. But don’t be fooled. Ruffin’s intense lyricism conveys a deep undercurrent of emotion, very often a kind of cascading tenderness. Read “The Girl in the Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” his homage to a great short story and its author and, in the setting and characters and mood it evokes, his rendering of it. Loneliness is at the heart of it, and its concomitant sense of nothingness (“nada pues nada”). That acute, crippling sense of meaninglessness at the core of human existence. But, by the end, like Ruffin, one understands that while “you don’t know anymore about life than you did before you went in,” you also understand that “you’re not so lonely anymore and the road doesn’t seem as long.” Through suffering you come to realize that “sometimes lonely is not bad because lonely teaches you to appreciate the things and people in your life that keep you from being lonely.” Here, and in other pieces, Ruffin’s achievement is that kind of lyricism; that kind of tenderness.
In the third section, From “Growing Up in Mississippi Poor and White but Not Quite Trash,” Ruffin also displays that same lyricism. In the first of two excerpts from his not-yet-published memoir, “Trains: The Beginning of a Lifelong Quest for Understanding,” he presents us with his lifelong love of trains, another American mythos, and in doing so, tenderly recalls his grandfather. Specifically, he recollects lovingly how his grandfather met the trains night and day with his little cart to tote the mailbags from the depot to the post office. At the end of the essay he describes a “small glass engine” his father had given him, “its smokestack filled with small hard candies, reds and greens and yellows.” Ruffin writes he ate one daily for weeks. More than just candy, he says, the taste reminded him “of trains and the worlds they came from and went to.”
Similarly, the essays in this, his fourth collection, become symbolic of much larger worlds than the often-insular South they describe. That is their true significance, their true gift. As such, like those small hard candies, they leave us with a “lingering sweetness.” Like the candies, they are rock-hard and real; and like them, they are the real transformed by the imagination into dreams.
Near the end of “The Girl in the Clean, Well-Lighted Place” Ruffin writes half wistfully and half determinedly, “But it cannot end here, whatever magic has been at work.” He needn’t have worried. In this wonderful book of essays he has made certain that, to quote the Houston journalist Leon Hale whom he quotes in his preface, his tales “start<s> off as truth and… go<es> on that way a long time.” This, too, is magic.