R. H. W. Dillard notes that in recent decades there has been a “shift in American publishing and critical assessment away from the literary merit of works themselves and toward the transitory values of celebrity.” Jim Dodge and his little book Fup appear to be the latest victims of that trend. Many favorable views take the tone of dust-jacket blurbs—“a stupendous book that will knock your socks off”—reflecting little if any true evaluation. Others simply avoid the question of Fup’s relative worth, focusing instead on its author’s overnight rise from a log-cabin life without electricity to the penthouse life of a celebrity.
On the other side are several critics who dismiss Dodge’s little tale, and his personal success, without any substantive explanation. One of these is Newsweek’s David Gates, who shrugs off the popular acclaim for Fup as “much ado about very little book.” Gates also exemplifies the unnecessary malice of many of Fup’s detractors when he caps a seven-hundred-word barb with this bit of gratuitous sarcasm: “’Fup’ will probably appeal to Honda Accord owners who wish they were driving pickup trucks”
Despite the paucity of meaningful evaluation, one thing is clear: Whether they praise, condemn, or ignore the actual book, a good many of Fup’s reviewers appear, like Gates’s Honda owners, to want something other than what they have on their hands. Then one must ask what they were expecting. Evidently, they were looking for “art” and “substance.” Gates complains of the book’s “artlessness,” although he snidely concedes that this lack “makes the book chic.” A writer in the Kirkus Reviews dismisses the book as “for reincarnation-ists only” (with “a few earthly smiles along the way”) and complains about the book’s “hang-loose, Cali-folksy tone.”
Such is the fate of instant celebrities such as Dodge, whose novel clearly has not been judged on its merits. In truth, his book does have considerable artistic merits, as well as major flaws. Not that reviewers are entirely to blame if they fail to see the merits, for not the least of Fup’s flaws is its tendency to flirt with philosophical profundity rather than make an explicit final statement. Nevertheless, if reviewers spent less time debating whether the author deserves celebrity status, they might perceive that Fup is in fact a successful piece of deliberate artistry.
Two of the book’s greatest strengths lie in its exposition of character and its fresh “tall-tale” treatment of certain plot elements.
Although the story as a whole is not a tall tale, many incidents read like an updated version of Paul Bunyan or a Mark Twain anecdote. There is the extravagant boasting of ninety-nine-year-old Jake Santee, reminiscent of the “Child of Calamity” raftsman in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Jake allows that in his prime he could “kick your ass into cordwood and have it stacked before the slash hit ground.” The tall-tale mentality shows up in even the most mundane pastime—a game of checkers at home with his adopted “grandson,” Tiny—when Jake invents a thoroughly outlandish nomenclature for his moves: the “Double King Kong Dick Twister” and the “Triple Dip Overland Sledge-Hammer Nut Crusher.” In another sexual hyperbole, Jake fondly recalls Dolly Pringle, a former girlfriend, who “could suck a golfball through 25 yards of garden hose. Seen her siphon gas uphill.”
Some elements that propel the story forward are also given tall-tale treatment. Jake’s homemade whiskey figures in the novel as a tranquilizer for the restless old man (helping him live “the still life”) as well as a source of income. The reader is given to understand that Ol’ Death Whisper—so called because a dying Indian handed the recipe to Jake—is by no means an ordinary alcoholic beverage. Here is how a few swigs affect a “longhair” guest of Jake who “sought and welcomed all forms of mental transformation”: he immediately bolted for the walnut tree in the front yard, went up it in a single gigantic bound, and spent the next three hours sitting among the bare limbs hunched over like a sick buzzard. The first hour he wept. The second hour he laughed. The third hour he was silent. At the start of the fourth hour he pitched forward and fell like a sack of wet grain. He broke both arms. On the way into the hospital, he offered to buy Granddaddy’s stock on hand and all future production for $20 a pint in exchange for sole distributorship. In a few years it had become a cult item among certain connoisseurs of drooling oblivion, and Granddaddy Jake was able to maintain the $300,000 balance in his and Tiny’s joint account.
A tall tale achieves its (mostly humorous) effects by highlighting the bounds of the humanly possible and then showing how its hero transcends those bounds. Usually, therefore, readers can identify the tall tale as a deliberate exaggeration not to be taken at face value. In Fup, however, Dodge often gives the reader extra assistance by signaling an embroidery upon the facts. Thus:Lockjaw [the wild pig] was a legend in the coastal hills both for his size and the wantonness of his destruction. Tales—subject to the usual human exaggeration—abounded, and even if you reduced them by half, he’d still tore up every garden from Humboldt County to the Marin line, killed enough lambs to keep the valley feedlots in operation for five years, bred so many sows that if they were lined up snout-to-tail they would stretch the length of the San Andreas fault, and all the while eluding the best hunters in northern California.
Tiny loves building fences and “plucking the top strand of barbed wire and listening to it resonate”; this leads the character Lub Knowland to call the fences “Tiny’s guitars.” When Lub claims to have heard their twang two hundred miles away, however, Dodge glosses: “Most folks however credited this claim as typical Lub Knowland bull”
Conversely, in some...
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