BASS 2021:  Gabriel Bump, “To Buffalo Eastward” (McSweeney’s 59)

A few summers ago, during an intense mental crisis, I moved to Buffalo to sort myself out, get grounded. That was a summer of long drives…. I remember getting to the Mackinac Bridge, pulling off the highway, taking a picture of the water and huge sky. It’s hard to explain what I felt. Rebirth, I guess; drowned in natural splendor. I wrote this piece, which I hope turns into a novel, based off that feeling.

Gabriel Bump, Contributor Note

In a recent online reading group, we were all puzzling over a story when one participant said something like, “If the author wanted to make it clearer, they would have written it that way.” Sometimes, as with this story,  I’m not sure if the author was deliberately being coy, or if I’m just dense. I’m not even sure whether the first-person narrator is male or female, let alone exactly what the relationship is with Pidge, who Flip is, and why they’re travelling to Buffalo in the first place (I’m still uncomfortable with they as a singular noun, but I’m working on it because it truly does make things easier).

I’m not sure any of that matters. The story is more about the feeling in moments, in bookstores in An Arbor, in Toledo, in Cleveland. On the roof of an office building. The next morning, leaving. I don’t really see the rebirth, the natural splendor, but Bump doesn’t say he’s writing about that, just that it was the feeling he was writing from.

Count the rhetorical repetition in the opening pages. The bookstores, for one. The decision to stop smoking “after just this last one” for another (yeah, we all know that one). The almost-anaphora of “At a liquor store in Ann Arbor”… “In a grocery store parking lot in Ann Arbor”… “Outside a house party in Ann Arbor”… “There was a bookstore in Toledo”.

I wasn’t confused about gender at first; I’d assumed the narrator, whose name we never learn, was male, simply because the author is, presumably, based on his name, male. We’re going to have to start watching those assumptions, aren’t we. The self-description could’ve gone either way, but I read it unquestioningly as male:

Here’s how I look: tallish; medium-brown freckles around my nose and eyes, on my ears; a broad nose with a little point, a little hook; strong-chinned; weak-bodied; soft, thin, broad-shouldered; my nails get too long before I chew them down; my foot arches are too high; without thinking, I walk on my toes; if I’m not mindful, my eyebrows can meld into a single thicket.
I have this ambiguous brown skin. People wonder if I’m Egyptian, Aboriginal, Brazilian, Mexican, Dominican, half of this, a quarter of that.
I have this long hair that grows up and out in curled waves. People don’t know what to make of it. In middle school, this classmate would pull at my hair, try to yank strands out, hold my curls up to the light.

I’m guessing, since “when I was little, people thought my mother was my nanny,” that Mom is black, and Dad is white, making our narrator biracial, but of course there are lots of shades in between those. I’m not sure it makes a difference in this story, though it always makes a difference, doesn’t it. Then there’s this:

Before I left, my mother gave me an industrial wrench for protection, in case my car broke down in Ohio and some local boys wanted to take advantage.

That phrase – “take advantage” – sounds far more like something a mother would say to a daughter than a son. But we could, as with race, be talking some in-between here. I know a lot of people don’t think there is an in-between for gender, but it seems more and more people are finding out there is. Maybe ambiguity is the better word for it.

What’s really interesting, and a lot more pertinent to the story, is the narrator admits he’s terrible at telling stories. This reminded me of something George Saunders wrote, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, about the story “Singers” by Turgenev, that maybe he knew he wasn’t good at traditional subtle, smooth transitions so he made them massive and intrusive to turn them into an asset. I don’t think it’s that Bump knows he isn’t good at backstory – I have no doubt he could have written this one in perfectly linear form, given how the rest of this story proceeds – but I think he didn’t want to be bogged down by it all, and wanted to leave it vague and disjointed. This especially makes sense since I gather this is now part of a novel. This vague, partial  backstory gives us a sense of confusion and a lack of stability that sets the stage for the confusion and lack of stability that follows, which, by the way, the narrator tells perfectly clearly. I love that: tell the truth but tell it slant; tell the confusing parts clearly and the clear parts confusingly. The heart of the story begins when our narrator meeting a carpenter in a bookstore:

There was a bookstore in Cleveland. There were stacks so tall you needed a ladder to reach the top. I asked a man with a ponytail if he could help with those Raymond Carver collections up there. He was a carpenter, not a librarian, he told me as much, hand on his hip, other hand holding Joyce and Morrison. He told me to climb the ladder myself, it wasn’t that high, I wasn’t that small.
When I came down, the man asked me to drink with him.

This scene starts out one way – rude, aggressive – then turns into something more like amiability. I have a feeling the carpenter asserting dominance and forcing the narrator to climb the ladder himself is key. How badly did he want those Raymond Carver collections? And, while it sounds so sophisticated that they’re reading Carver, Joyce, and Morrison (presumably Toni), if they’re that sophisticated, why don’t they already have copies?

A couple of girls join them at the bar (bolstering the case that the narrator is male, btw; two women would be far likely to join two men than a male-female couple) and the literary display increases: the carpenter gives his name as Sancho Panza, the girls choose Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker, and our narrator is…  Invisible Man. “The lights!” yells one of the girls. Yeah, the lights. That was nice; presumably he’s not referring to HG Wells.

Through all this we’re still hearing about Pidge, so our narration is still a bit confused. We find out more, but still have no clear idea what the narrator is doing here.

But it no longer matters once he starts doing it:  the carpenter takes them up on the roof a three-story office building he owns. Then he hands out pills. “That wasn’t the first time I had taken pills from a stranger’s pocket,” our narrator tells us, then we hear about that time in high school in the abandoned house with the (probably hallucinatory) muskrat in the sink (maybe). I’m not a big fan of drug scenes, but that night on the roof – and remember, it’s only a three-story building, we’re not talking a skyscraper – is pretty cool.

Back on the roof in Cleveland, Sancho Panza wanted to know if the pills we’re working — could we feel ourselves turning inside out, exploding like a flower?
“I could wake up in Egypt,” Jordan Baker said.
“What difference would it make?” Daisy Buchanan asked.
“I’d have all the sand I could want,” Jordan Baker said. “There is sand in Ohio!” Daisy Buchanan said.
“Not the same,” Jordan Baker said, sat on the ground. “It’s just not the same.”
I found myself yards away come up walking in a circle, counting at my revolutions.
Sancho Panza grabbed my ankles, begged me not to let him drown. I had my hand on Sancho Panzas collar when I noticed the sky, swirling and wavering, preparing to rupture. Out there in the distance, toward downtown, the sky sucked up tall buildings.
“It’s coming for us,” I said.
Sancho Panza had stopped swinging at my throat and screaming. He went limp, took deep breaths, turned an ear to the roof, coughed, and spit up thick brown mucus.
“They’re working,” Sancho Panza said. “I think they’re working.”

Interesting that the guys (?) are having frightening hallucinations, while the girls are talking about sand. But it’s  the use of full literary names that makes this particular drug scene appeal to me. Not Jordan or Sancho, but Jordan Baker and Sancho Panza. They aren’t names with two pieces; they’re labels, one piece. Sancho Panza, the helper who serves the make-believe Don in the hopes of governing his own private island, then discovers being in charge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The sanity to Quijote’s madness. Daisy Buchanan, the clueless romantic. Jordan Baker, the hardened realist who is willing to cheat to get what she wants.

They go inside the building and have a good time raiding desks (Family photos! All that liquor stashed in bottom drawers! A “list of underperforming employees”! I’d love to do this kind of thing) then fall asleep.

Curled up against these whacked-out strangers, I felt a unique warmth, one I hadn’t known before. I felt clear and directed, anchored. I had found peace. Here, I belonged.

Of course. Because, first of all, you’re drugged, and second, with strangers, there’s no history, no tomorrow. You don’t have to worry about anything but now. With family, with friends you’re going to see every day for years to come, there are debts and obligations, apologies to make. Again there’s this mismatch: peace comes from being anchored in the moment, versus the chaos of being attached for a lifetime. And of course he dreams of Pidge (yes, I’m going with male, the mother’s comment notwithstanding. It’s just one more mismatch).

The last two paragraphs return us to travel; they’re beautiful, in a plain-spun way, and carry us into the future, to Buffalo, or wherever he’s going.

Ward put this story in the “transformation of place” category, and it’s easy to see why. The rooftop becomes all sorts of things; the offices below become a playground, a bedroom, a place of peace rather than somewhere boring people do boring jobs filing papers and writing emails. But the story surrounding the office building makes me curious about the narrator, why he’s headed to Buffalo, and what he’s going to do once he gets there. I hope he remembers what it feels like, that sense of peace, direction, solidity. I hope he finds it again, this time with people who will be around for a while.

* * *

Rhiannon Morgan-Jones posts about the story on her blog, Notes From This Pretty Sight: “The openness to strangers, the slivers of space by which you might enter each other’s worlds, that can happen while traveling is something I recognized from my own experience.”

3 responses to “BASS 2021:  Gabriel Bump, “To Buffalo Eastward” (McSweeney’s 59)

  1. Thank you for this illuminating review. It helped me understand the author’s decisions better. I never felt a connection to the narrator — do you think that was the author’s intention?

    • Hi Joan, great to hear from you!

      I’m very fond of understanding authorial intent (even though it’s considered literarily irrelevant these days) but in this case, I think the very structure of the text is enlightening on the topic of connection. It’s episodic. Here we are in this bookstore and that parking lot and some city and a bridge and we’re going somewhere but we don’t know why… it’s more like a series of snapshots (or in the current media environment, Instagrams) than a continuous narrative, and so that’s how we come to know our narrator – in moments.

      Even the one long moment, when he meets the guy in the bookstore spends the evening with him and the girls, isn’t very revealing, because 1) we never learn his name, and other demographics – age, race, gender – are fuzzy as well; 2) given the entire literary canon to choose from, he picks Invisible Man as his moniker for the evening, another hard-to-know character without a name; 3) drugs make everything episodic unless they make it compressed like a black hole. So this isn’t a narrator we’re going to understand a lot about, where he’s coming from, why he’s going, what he’s looking for, what he fears and wants and will accept.

      I’d infer that the author chose this style for a reason, that the reader will connect to the narrator in other ways, in his aloofness, perhaps, in his restlessness, in his journey. In moments, like the moment in the bookstore, in the bar, when he sees the photos in the office building, when he sees the note on his windshield. And we’ll add up those moments, or maybe just appreciate them individually.

      It’s also complicated because as I understand it, this will be part of a novel (he refers to “Buffalo fiction” on Twitter). From the author’s pov, that means he has plenty of time to develop a connection, so it doesn’t have to be done within the 7000 words of a story. And of course that makes the whole story an episode.

      I hope this makes some kind of sense!

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