George Garrett’s work spans many genres. Considered both a poet and fiction writer of considerable importance, Garrett produced a body of work that is varied, substantial, and highly regarded. In his two historical novels, Death of the Fox and The Succession, Garrett is considered to have elevated the level of a popular literary form to that of serious art. In his poetry and his fiction, Garrett’s topics alternately range from classical to popular cultures, thus revealing and providing a unique perspective, which at once embraces the ancient and the modern.
“Cold Ground Was My Bed Last Night”
One of Garrett’s persistent themes has been that of man’s experience as prisoner. In “Cold Ground Was My Bed Last Night,” all the characters are prisoners, no matter what side of the bars they live on, or whether, like the Goat Man, they live in the shifting netherworld between imprisonment de facto and imprisonment de jure. The story opens as deputy Larry Berlin, coming back to the county seat after patrolling all night, is almost hit by a car coming around a curve too quickly. Enraged, he turns around and chases it, overtakes it, and slides to a halt across its front, forcing the driver to stop. The driver gets out, pulls out a gun, and the deputy kills him with one shot. Then he discovers that there is someone else inside.
Meanwhile, the sheriff, Jack Riddle, is waiting for Berlin and his prisoner at the sheriff’s office and half-seriously threatening the Goat Man, a habitué of the jail, with ninety days if he is caught drunk and disorderly again. He saves a little face, mostly for the sake of the Goat Man, by saying he does not want the goats to starve. The Goat Man, or the Balloon Man, is a leitmotif in Garrett’s work, surfacing in places as disparate as the last scene of The Young Lovers, and the long story about Quirk. Here, he represents Nature, mindless, oblivious to law or regulation, and incorrigible, something that can imprison one if one believes that Nature will yield to rationalities. The sheriff is unusual; he carries no gun and is not without some compassion. Like most of Garrett’s best characters, he is a man of the religious mode. In the office, there is a magazine open to the picture of a naked woman. She is the banal and two-dimensional embodiment of that goddess whom Riddle serves—respectability. The pinup is joined in the close, hot, dirty office by a fly, another objective correlative, this time of life itself, oblivious, buzzing, annoying life. Moreover, the fly seems to be the presiding genius of the place, its totem animal.
Ike Toombs, the other man in the car, is brought in. The sheriff envies him because he represents the open road; he is a shabby modern version of the wayfaring life, but he is a wayfarer nevertheless, and he even sings a verse of the traditional song which gives its name to this story. The sheriff sees in him almost a kindred spirit: Both men are chivalric figures, knight and troubadour.
This illusion, however, soon begins to break down. The prisoner tries to wheedle his release from the sheriff, who has established some kind of tacit understanding with the prisoner. Next, officers from the state police call and report that a service station has been held up and a teenage boy was shot the night before by a man driving the car in which Toombs was riding. His friend of the moment has decided Toombs’s fate for him, and Toombs has had no hand in it; for now the disappointed sheriff is thrown back on his resources, which are meager once his confidence in himself and his faith in freedom are shaken. The sheriff angrily rejects the wayfarer even though he knows the jury will no doubt convict on circumstantial evidence. He refuses him his old cheap guitar, an act that brings tears to the eyes of the prisoner, and he throws the magazine away. One man has been killed, another sentenced, and another has died a spiritual death.
“A Wreath for Garibaldi”
In another story, “A Wreath for Garibaldi,” an American in Rome who “works” at the American Academy, a man who never names himself or is named, is at a party at which an Englishwoman he admires wants to recruit a volunteer to lay a wreath under the huge bronze statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi. There is an awkward silence. Political tension is very strong in Rome that year, old fascists and new radicals are looking very portentous, and a huge scandal has occurred because of an “orgy” at a big party. The government is obsessed with the idea that because Garibaldi Day is April 30 and the next day May Day, the international holiday that in Europe is New Year, Easter, and Christmas all rolled into one for the Second and Third and Fourth Internationals, any wreath honoring Garibaldi is probably a communist provocation.
The American volunteers to lay the wreath at Garibaldi’s statue on the condition that he do it alone, no press, just a simple gesture; but he has to go through the ambassador to get permission. He is also asked to leave “a little bunch of flowers” at the bust of anti-fascist poet Lauro di Bosis. In the course of his official dealings with the government, he finds that the bureaucrats do not know who di Bosis is. It is all too evident that everyone knows who Garibaldi is.He is supposed to lay the wreath the next day, but he decides not to go through with it; it was not going to measure up to what the English lady had wanted done. He goes to where the statue of Garibaldi is. Garibaldi looks imperial. The equestrian statue of his wife, Anna, baby in arms, firing behind her, horse at full gallop, looks silly. He goes across to the bust of di Bosis—“Pale, passionate, yes glorious, and altogether of another time. ” He thinks of those who died rushing the village in France in a stupid, pointless frontal attack, of those killed in police stations all over the civilized...
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