Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Adventures of Douglas Bragg

Madison Jones, The Adventures of Douglas Bragg (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2008). 216 pp. $29.95.

At the beginning of the month, I advanced the name of “the now forgotten Madison Jones” as a shining example of “old-fashioned novelists [who] once stood in the background, unmoved by exhortations to dissent from the proven methods for writing fiction, and more interested in writing unpretentious sense than in making a fast name for themselves.” Well-satisfied with my point, I delivered my parting shot: “Are there still writers like that around?”

As it turns out, Madison Jones himself is still around. And at the age of eighty-three he has written his twelfth novel—a southern picaresque entitled The Adventures of Douglas Bragg. That Jones would have been forgotten, even by those who sometime did him seek, is not without explanation. He has not been published by a New York house in a quarter century; his last five novels have appeared under the imprints of university presses and regional publishers in Nashville and Atlanta. While his work has not entirely escaped the notice of literary scholars, their reflections have hardly found prominent venues. A special number of the Chattahoochie Review (Fall 1996) was devoted to Jones, and a book of essays by diverse hands came out four years ago—from the University Press of Southern Denmark.

In his latest, Jones remains much the same as he has been since publishing his first novel The Innocent at the age of thirty-two. He is unpretentious; he is not interested in showing off his literary gifts; he respects the tradition of the novel. If he doesn’t write sentences that melt in the mouth, he continues to display what Charles Poore called, in reviewing his first novel for the New York Times, “a remarkable capacity to see clearly and deeply into the dramatic conflicts of human character caught in the dilemmas of a violently changing time.” He takes seriously the notion of a literary career, which used to involve the self-assigned task of mastering different genres. Jones has written a buckskin epic (Forest of the Night), a protest novel (A Buried Land), an unromantic pastoral (An Exile), a tragedy according to classical rules (A Cry of Absence), an allegory of good and evil (Passage through Gehenna), a historical novel of the Civil War (Nashville 1864). In his latest he contributes to what E. M. Forster calls the “literature of Rogues.”

Forster goes on to call this kind of fiction “dreariest of all, though the Open Road runs it pretty close. . . .” Yet two of the greatest American novels are picaresques; Jones pays homage to them in his very title. And ordinary readers, who don’t have to ask themselves what they are going to write next, have been eager to get their hands on such books at least since 1554 when Lazarillo de Tormes was first published in Spain. All the world loves a lover, but it will abandon its principles for a rogue. Just look at Bill Clinton’s approval ratings. The reckless cunning, hopscotch logic, and narrow-eyed attitude toward life make him as fascinating as an undiscovered tribe.

Jones’s rogue is a twenty-four-year-old college graduate who for the past two years has been, by his own admission, “going nowhere.” He most likely owes his name to Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, although there was also a Texas hillbilly singer in the fifties named Douglas Bragg. It is, in any case, a recognizably southern name. The year is 1960. His parents are divorced, and Douglas Bragg lives with his mother in “well-off” circumstances in Birmingham, Alabama. Because they are well-off, they are selected by the family to take in Uncle Jack, elderly, impoverished, and a non-stop talker. “No end to his memories,” Douglas says:

He told me about horse races and cockfights and revival meetings and town bullies and coon hunts and outrageous practical jokes, and on and on in a voice only a little coarsened by phlegm in his throat. But of all the subjects in his repertoire, the one he most talked about was, as he called it, the War between the States. He had a lot of books about the War, but it was like he had got his knowledge not from books but from being on hand at the time, which was impossible. He was better than any book.His mother blames Douglas’s aimlessness and inability to hold a job on Uncle Jack’s voluble storytelling. As if to prove her right, Douglas leaves home the same day that she installs Uncle Jack in a “home for old folks.” He hitchhikes out of town.

What follows is, on one level, the usual stuff of a picaresque. In this kind of novel, plot is thrown out—plot, as I put it earlier, in the old sense of a scheme to achieve some end—and what takes its place is a series of unrelated situations which, as the word adventure implies, the rogue comes upon. Again and again he finds himself in what Huck calls a “tight place.” Douglas is picked up outside of Birmingham by a health-elixir salesman who, rounding a corner too fast in his dented Studebaker, sideswipes a police car. He manages to outrun the law, making it back to his mother’s house in a small town not far away. He is worried that he will be tracked down. “The problem had begun to interest me,” Douglas says, “especially since it could not cost me anything.” He cooks up a plan to abandon the car somewhere and report it stolen. “It had become a little like a game,” he reflects, and his plan is offered “in the gaming spirit.”

Douglas is wrong, though, about its not costing him anything. The salesman and his mother adopt his plan, but then accuse him of stealing the car. Douglas is tossed in jail—until he cooks up another plan to get himself sprung. The pattern of the novel is set. Douglas finds himself trapped in the service of a pig farmer who nurses him back to health after he is mugged, but when Douglas tries to run away, the farmer reports him to a friendly sheriff as a thief, and he is borne back to servitude. Until he cooks up a plan, etc. The fun lies in the contest between Douglas’s roguish wits and the doggedness of those who would put him under restraint.

While the pattern is unbroken, the fun turns to shame when Douglas meets another rogue like himself. After getting busted on a drug charge while trying to escape a dealer who fronts as an undertaker, Douglas is given a suspended sentence of six months—as long as he remains under the supervision of a “preacher and upright man” with a little farm in addition to his church. After his farm chores, he must endure “daily sessions with the Reverend” in which they study the Bible together. Douglas soon infers that he is not the first young man whom the Reverend had got hold of to serve both as “a farmhand and a helpless victim to instruct about Salvation.” On a Friday night in town—he is permitted to go to a movie approved by the Reverend—he meets a light-hearted predecessor to whom Douglas takes an immediate liking:He had a dry way of putting things and, as I soon learned, a readiness to talk about himself and his experiences even when his narrations didn’t exactly cast the best light on him. . . . He even touched on minor criminal acts of his: peccadilloes, as he saw them, like one I had never known anybody to actually do: yell “Fire” in a crowded theater. And when I asked why he had been arrested, he described, dramatically and with obvious pleasure, just how it felt to punch a cop in the nose. I didn’t know how much truth there was in the things he told me, but as he told them, they made good stories.A plan to take revenge on the Reverend succeeds in ruining him, and Douglas begins to repent of his roguishness. And here the novel turns out to be contrary to expectation. If the traditional picaresque is written with the satirical intent of holding up to ridicule an “upright” and hypocritical society, if the rogue’s clash with what is right and legal makes him the hero, the standard-bearer of social freedom in a world of blank servitude, then The Adventures of Douglas Bragg is a picaresque that means to revolve the genre against itself.

Madison Jones has been characterized as “a bedrock Calvinist whose characters remain flawed and whose submission to sin requires punishment.” If that is the case, his Calvinism must be read between the lines of his twelfth novel. But something not unlike a literary Calvinism remains on view. In the end, the good man is not the outlaw, but the flawed creature who, knowing that freedom is not the ultimate truth of human experience, struggles within the iron confines of the law, even if his struggles make him slightly ridiculous, even if his desires lay outside. As Douglas’s mother says in the closing line of the novel, “Let this be a lesson for you.”
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Jones’s previous novels:

The Innocent (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1957).

Forest of the Night (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960).

A Buried Land (New York: Viking, 1963).

An Exile (New York: Viking, 1967).

A Cry of Absence (New York: Crown, 1971).

Passage through Gehenna (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978).

Season of the Strangler (New York: Doubleday, 1982).

Last Things (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989).

To the Winds (Atlanta: Longstreet, 1996).

Nashville 1864: The Dying of the Light (Nashville: Sanders, 1997).

Herod’s Wife (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003).

4 comments:

jeff mauvais said...

"...hopscotch logic..."

Wonderful!

Collin said...

What would you say is Jone's best novel? Where do you recommend starting?

D. G. Myers said...

Collin,

A Cry of Absence—wonderful novel.

—DGM

Homework Help said...

Oh! This is nice. Be grabbing a copy soon...