Sunday, April 1, 2007

Going Back to Bisbee

The Arizona Council for the Humanities and the Arizona State Library have generously supported the OneBookAz program. For 2007 Going Back to Bisbee by Richard Shelton has been selected and will be read throughout the state during April, 2007. As part of the OneBookAz program, Mesa Community College will participate by hosting a reading by the author and a discussion of the book has been organized by the library staff at MCC. I have been asked to moderate the book discussion. What qualifies me to moderate such a discussion? Very little, I suspect. I was very fortunate to live in Bisbee, like Richard Shelton, one of my children was born in Cochise Co. I have summered in Bisbee for the past 10 years and have grown to love the area.

Richard Shelton follows in the rich tradition of American travel literature his 1989 journey from Tucson to Bisbee Arizona. Shelton, the self conscious narrator, using the skills of the poet, evokes ambiance of southeastern Arizona. He echoes Steinbeck’s "Again it might have been the American tendency in travel. One goes, not to much to see but to tell afterward." (Travels With Charley)

Clearly Shelton is concerned with voice and he exercises that voice to paint a wonderful view of his quest, but make no mistake, his purpose, like that of his predecessors, goes beyond the travelogue. Like Steinbeck Shelton names his van, coloring the audience view of this trip. Steinbeck had a quixotic atmosphere and Blue Boy evokes, for this reading, both the famous painting and a line from a long forgotten ELO lyric.

Shelton’s travel persona, like that of his predecessors; Twain, Stevenson, Kerouac and Steinbeck is not in control, that is the trip is the controlling metaphor for the narrative and “We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this, a journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it. I feel better now, having said this, although only those who have experienced it will understand it." (Charley)

And so it goes with Richard Shelton, Blue Boy and the Arizona monsoon that blows up to mirror the journey that Shelton begins on July 20, 1989. And like Samuel Clemens, this will not be a direct or rapid trip. And like the 19th century humorist, Shelton intends to engage our funny bone as well as our heads and hearts. In an episode worthy of Twain, Shelton pays tribute to Bill Murray and the rest of the SNL gang in his hilarious depiction of the squirrel invasion of his home and his wife’s rage at the rodent attack. However, Shelton has broader horizons to travel and he lays the foundation for one of the conflicts that we will find on the road in this early slapstick.

Before turning to the motion and conflict at the heart of Going Back it is appropriate to ponder Shelton’s mediation on the role of the artist. Like Melville’s Confidence Man, Shelton as narrator embraces the role of the trickster, a stock character in literature. Shelton’s con man likes to invent names for plants and animals, a clear reflection of the creativity at the heart of a writer’s craft. Like Kerouac’s characters in conflict “the holy con-man with the shining minds [Dean] and the sorrowful poetic con-man with the dark mind that is Carlo Marx." Shelton paints the tension between memory and reality in his quest.

Like Kerouac Shelton says, “And I am going back to Bisbee, not really knowing why?”(21). Clearly Shelton is playing the con game here, either with himself, with the reader, or more likely both, for later Shelton acknowledges that, “I guess what I am looking for is some quality of the soul . . . “(193). While the remainder of Shelton’s reflection is informative, he would have been better served to end the reflection with the soul. For this is a journey not defined by culture, or history, or ideology, rather it is a response to a fundamental yearning, a longing for self knowledge.

Like Melville, Twain, Stevenson, Kerouac and Steinbeck, Shelton invites the reader to make their own journey. “Steinbeck makes his observations, expresses his opinions, and draws his own conclusions, but rarely, if ever, does he present a prescription for the societal woes and wrongs he witnesses. He also underscores the personal, subjective nature of his impressions, making it clear to readers that he is creating his own reality of America in this writing: “What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style.” Implicit in this statement is that everyone has to create his/her own reality, based on individual knowledge and experience.”

Unlike the tradition of writers who document journeys or quests in American consciousness Shelton seems to invite a response to conflicts both local and global. Shelton is clearly concerned with the intersection of humanity and nature, seemingly preoccupied with what he fears is a negative footprint on the planet by his fellows. This global conflict is reflected in his introspection about his country of birth and a naive longing to find an answer possible only if he would “forgo my Anglo culture entirely” (193). So we see the common quest for self, search for identity and yearning for reconciliation coloring our narrator.


He must go to Bisbee to his youth, the place of his marriage, the birth of his child and perhaps his own birth to confront the tensions that seem to characterize this middle aged Texan, transplanted to Arizona in love with the desert but in some way loathing himself. Unlike the frenetic gonzo trip of Kerouac or Thompson, Shelton quietly leaves the rat race in Tucson, leaves I -10 and takes the back road to Bisbee.

Notably the trip to Bisbee takes most of the book, the arrival is anticlimactic. But Shelton had to make the trip and in opening his quest to us, invites our reaction to his experience and, more importantly, compels us to Go Back.

30 comments:

Greg Pratt said...

Paradise Valley Community College Book Club is participating in OneBookAz and is reading Going Back to Bisbee.

Check out my posting at their blog PVCC

Greg Pratt said...

From NPR August 1, 2005

Author, poet and university professor Richard Shelton uses a trip from Tucson to Bisbee to tell the story of the land. Along the way, he also reflects on his life in the desert.

The NPR site has an excerpt Chapter 1

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