There was virtually nothing I liked about Jim Dodge’s Fup when it arrived at my door. A blurb from the Independent on Sunday telling me ‘You’ll love it’, coupled with the sub-title ‘A modern fable’, had me close to shredding it with extreme prejudice.
Three things stopped me, though – the peculiarly grumpy looking duck on the cover, the quirky title, and the light weight of the book. It’s a poor way, probably, to weigh up a book’s merits, but physical weight for me always plays a part. It’s not that I’m against big books – far from it – but they have a harder time convincing me they’re worth opening. Life is short.
This is a book that is short, in pages and on pretensions. The opening, with its nicknamed character didn’t grab me, but the language and rhythm of the story was such that it led me on:
“Gabriel Santee was seventeen years old and three months pregnant when she married ‘Sonic Johnny’ Makhurst, a Boeing test pilot and recent heir to a modest Ohio hardware fortune. The ceremony was performed in a crepe festooned hangar at moffit Field, witnessed by a socre of Sonich Johnny’s drunken buddies. The bride and groom exchanged vows while standing on the wing of an x-77 jet fighter. Two months before Gabriel came to term, the same wing tore off the plane at 800 miles an hour over the mojave desert with Johnny at the controls. After a bitter court battle with one of her late husband’s previous wives, Gabriel inherited his estate.”
Short and sweet, signalling no-nonsense in the best American mid-western tradition of ‘straight-talking’ – and yet that casual and almost absurd violence, which is followed by more death and destruction by page 3, caused by a duck, signals something else entirely. Dodge, the crafty old story-teller has at a single turn won my trust and started gleefully abusing it.
I dove into the short book, coming up for air every now and then with a bemused grin on my face. The story is of one orphan, Tiny (who obviously is anything but), who is taken in by his moonshine distilling grandfather. Their lives are dominated by games of checkers and the fencing of land, punctuated by a long-running feud with a great big boar (who takes personal exception to being fenced in or out of anywhere). And then fup, a duck looking to be adopted, comes into their lives:
Fup was generally indifferent to Westerns, except for seemingly arbitrary scenes when she would quack excitedly. It took Tiny and Granddaddy Jake about five months to figure out that what all the scenes had in common were horses and after discussing it they decided to buy her a colt for company when Bill Leland’s mare foaled the coming spring. Tiny started roughing out drawings for a ten foot high split-rail corral when they got home that night.
Fup’s favourite movies were romances, whether light and witty or murderously tragic. She watched intently from her roost on the back of the seat, occasionaly tilting here head to quack in sympathy at the problems assailing love. She would not tolerate Granddaddy’s derisive and consistently obscene comments, and after she’d almost torn off his ear a few times he settled for quiet mumbling. Tiny watched without comment.
This unlikely trio becomes utterly plausible within the confines of Dodge’s storytelling, and though it’s downplayed throughout (Granddaddy, for example, points out that very often things just don’t make sense) this is a novel with big themes on its mind told through small and often petty characters. It’s about the relationship between man and beast; it’s about the relationship between man and his environment; it’s about the biggest theme of all, death. And it’s a book that manages to tackle these themes head-on with all the seriousness and resolve of an angered fup duck (“‘That’s a terrible name’ tiny groaned”).
It succeeds where bigger books have failed, and I momentarily find myself agreeing with some of the book’s blurbs (though not with that of The Face whose ‘if you fell in love with Babe then you’ll love Fup’ misses the point so completely that it’s almost slanderous), in particular that of the San Francisco Chronicle which declared rightly that the book is “Stupendous – a jewel, a gem, a diamond in the cesspool of life.”
Tags: american authors