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The Kenosha Kid

As episode ten of part one of Gravity’s Rainbow opens, Tyrone Slothrop — injected with sodium amytal to induce a sort of trance wherein his psyche will be probed — is chewing on the line “Bet you never did the Kenosha Kid” in much the same way that I remember trying many years ago as a would-be poet to bend the repeating lines of a villanelle to my will by hanging on them different meanings and syntax. Is the Kenosha a dance? Or is the Kenosha Kid a person? If so, is he from the town Kenosha? And what does all this tomfoolery mean anyway? Weisenburger calls this interlude “one of the outstanding enigmas of GR,” and I certainly remember being baffled by it when I first read the book a few years ago.

But this time through, with the syntactic chicanery involved in the obsessive construction of a villanelle on my mind and tromping through the prose a bit better oriented than last time, I began to make a strange sort of sense of the Kenosha Kid bit.

Episode 1.10 is in some ways about discovering the pure. Consider for example Slothrop’s race anxiety, which certainly calls to mind period concerns with matters of miscegenation, race inequality, and so on. The appearance of Malcolm X (and particularly the fact that he appears pre-enlightenment) seems telling enough. The reference to the song “Cherokee” and Pynchon’s line “one more lie about white crimes” and several other references to Indians made me think of America’s treatment of its aborigines, which may resonate with certain other grisly race marginalization that World War II reeks of.

Weisenburger posits that this episode introduces some of the most important opposites in the novel (e.g. north/south, black/white). He also mentions the at first (to me) unintelligible pairing of “shit” and “the word.” Well, the episode is surely full of shit. But what’s this business about “the word?” Maybe it’s a typographical error in my older edition of the companion. Thinking of Slothrop’s descent into the sewer, I remembered that episode 1.4 dealt pretty extensively with another pairing: sky vs. earth. And flipping back, I reencountered the following: “Shit, money, and the Word, the three American truths, powering the American mobility, claimed the Slothrops, clasped them for good to the country’s fate.”

That capital W makes a big difference. Slothrop’s turpitude generally and our trip through the sewer of his uncomfortably unfettered subsconscious looks back to his family’s history and its granite-chiseled concern for squaring matters with that hand reaching down from the sky. Near the end of 1.10, we even return briefly to a churchyard scene:

Then for another moment it seems that all the Christmas bells in the creation are about to join in chorus — that all their random pealing will be, tis one time, coordinated, in harmony, present with tidings of explicit comfort, feasible joy.

But then we go right back to Slothrop’s fantasy of the Roxbury slum, sine-waving from relief, hope, and redemption back to the gutter and his fear of all those black folk with their prying fingers, and back to those ehisshehwle Hahvaad boys who ought to know better than to think the sorts of things we encounter while rummaging through Slothrop’s mind. All this back and forth, from grime to righteousness and so on, begins to seem to correspond roughly with that pesky pairing that big books tend to touch on: right and wrong.

In 2005, a Pynchon reader discovered a pulp western story titled “The Kenosha Kid” that itself takes up moral ambiguities. The eponymous hero is described early on as a sort of Robin Hood. A gambler who makes his living taking other people’s money but who has a large capacity for both guilt and generosity, the Kenosha Kid struggles over the course of the story with how he can best reason which of the people he encounters are and are not scoundrels and how he should conduct himself. For example, he cheats at cards to beat a man he believes had pulled a prior stick-up, but then he begins to feel sympathy for the character. When the stick-up-artist lands in jail due to circumstances resulting directly from the loss of his money, the Kid endures something of a moral crisis. He feels bad for the bad guy. Published in 1931, the story is of about the right vintage for Slothrop to have read as a youngster. And of course we all know that we dredge up the weirdest things in dreams, presumably also when in drug-induced trances.

So to me, the Kenosha Kid bits that frame 1.10 begin to make sense as snatches from Slothrop’s memory that bubble up as he works through matters of judging people based not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character (reasoned judgment of character being something the Kid prides himself on). It’s especially relevant given the content of Slothrop’s hallucination and our discovery in 1.12 that the whole point of his participation in these experiments is “to help illuminate racial problems in his own country.” In other words, maybe all this poking at Slothrop ostensibly to get at racial issues in America is pushing buttons in his head that make him ping-pong back and forth between reprehensible racist thoughts and a more noble and enlightened impulse he’ll recall from having read “The Kenosha Kid.” None of this is to say that I think Pynchon is trying to show us a man fighting a morality war with himself; but it does seem as if he’s maybe showing us a way in which he thinks the brain might operate when left untended.

Slothrop’s wordplay, then, becomes for me a sort of emblem of his subconscious brain at work. In the same way that I twiddled lo these many years ago with the syntax and enjambment of my repeating lines of doggerel until I felt like I had worked out a scheme that felt right, Slothrop’s tranced-out brain here is trying to piece together a coherent sense of the moral right, and as so often happens in dreams, a minor detail becomes the focus of a riff, is imbued with greater significance than it really merits on its own.

  1. February 27, 2012 at 8:24 pm

    Great thoughts on a rich section. I remember being puzzled by it my first time around and this time it was only partially demystified. And to brush up against Paul’s post, I also felt that this section was the most Joycian so far — something about the playfulness of the Kenosha kid phrase and then of course the stream-of-consciousness through Slothrop’s racial experiences. If Joyce had written Oxen of the Sun twenty years later perhaps he would have included a parody of the American pulp Western.

    Overall, I’ve been surprised at how many details I remember from my first read over ten years ago. I suspect that this is because we’re still in the expository chapters, whatever that means in GR. I remember much less about Parts 3 and 4.

    • Ken
      February 28, 2012 at 4:43 am

      This section also parodies William S. Burroughs, particularly in The Wild Boys.

  2. February 28, 2012 at 11:17 am

    Very illuminating! I loved this section. I read it before picking up the related section of the Companion (something I have stopped doing; I now read Weisenburger’s intro before the actual GR text, spoilers be damned), and was very impressed by the allusions to Malcom X’s “Autobiography,” some which did not register until a subsequent Weisenburger-aided reread. I stared at the first related line, “Red, the Negro shoeshine boy,” for a couple of minutes, thinking I’ve read this somewhere before… then Malcom X/Alex Haley’s masterpiece came back to me and I had fun picking out the other allusions, like the mouth harp, etc.

    The thing that sticks with me that I hope comes up later or becomes more illuminated is the “There’s only ONE cowboy, ONE Indian, etc.” stuff at the end of the section. Except there are actually many variations of the ONE Indian but only one variation of the cowboy/westwardman. I know I am missing something, and I hope to find out what that is.

    • February 28, 2012 at 11:37 am

      I actually had written a bit about the ONE bits in this post, but it felt a little shoehorned in, so I edited out.

      To me, those things touched on the purity aspect a little bit — ie, the fact that there can be only one resonates in some way with the notion of purity of race. It also made me think about the Platonic ideals idea, that there’s really only one true instance of a given thing and the rest mere shades (I’m no philosopher, and my understanding of this idea is sketchy at best). This too I began to try to relate to the idea of a single moral right and how squishy such a thing is. In other words, in a chapter full of ambiguity (even down to the black/white figure lurking in the shadows near the end) and waffling, it seems fitting to consider the idea of the physical and moral absolute as well, and so this sort of Platonic concept of the ONE came in. Of course, I never quite found a way to make it all work and it began to feel like I was trying to force a thesis, so I nixed the ONE stuff from my post. I think I’m missing something here too. 🙂

  3. February 28, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    See, this is why I love doing these things here: We all read so differently! Thanks, Daryl, for helping with this section. It’s partly one of my favorite of this first week’s reading, and partly one of my least favorite. All the shit stuff… I just can’t even. I thought I was doing OK with it, and then I got to that thick, fuzzy dingleberry stuck in Slothrop’s nostril, and I had to take a break.

    But the Kenosha Kid stuff I love! I like your connection to villanelles, because what you’re trying to do in working those repeating lines over and over is make the same set of words mean something different each time you see them. It turns into an interpretation game, like “The Doubloon” in Moby-Dick, which for me always foregrounds questions of what things mean and how we know that. Feels like an authorial demonstration of the paranoia we’ve seen crop up a few times in-universe.

    In other words, I read it as the performance of an exercise that could be done with any number of phrases, and basically completely skipped over the content of the actual phrase used. So thanks for helping fill that in. 🙂

  4. Dennis Fleming
    February 29, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    Nicely done. You simultaneously answered my first WTF before I could post and set the bar hish

  5. March 2, 2012 at 1:55 am

    [bowing]
    This is why I want to read with GR vets. I have to reread the section and your writing. The section felt awash in 20thC “everything is shit, everyone’s out to get me, I have to pretend to be something I’m not to avoid being found out, and the Word (God, Bible, Jesus) are not worth the paper they’re printed on” tropes. I read the section like a Gertrude Stein poem, listening more than reading, as it seems you did.

    I’m glimpsing that this read won’t take GR off my to-do list. Damned thing needs several reads, dagnabit!

  1. February 27, 2012 at 3:29 pm

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