“An intense love letter to language, literature, life…” – Little Boy by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I arranged a séance with my high school literature teacher to discuss Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s, Little Boy. “Chris, I was so happy to get your invitation on BookedFace to discuss this new novel with you. You were always my favourite student, such a good reader. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy. Who is this Farlongspaghetti? What is this mess that you asked me to read?”

“His name is Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Mrs. Happert. One of the 20th century’s leading poets as well as an essayist/activist who founded the influential City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. He did lots of work with Ginsberg and Kerouac and the rest of the Beats. And he’s turning 100 today, March 24. How would you describe the plot of his novel?”

“Well, all I have to say is that he has not written a novel. No sir.”

“Well, then what kind of text is it?” I asked.

“Where did you learn that fancy word, ‘text’? Not in my class! That’s quite a mouthful for a farm boy who drank himself out of two state colleges.” She patted her blue hair. “How can it be a novel? It doesn’t have a plot or paragraphs or chapters or even sentences. My goodness, most of the time, this Mr. Fourlaneghetti doesn’t even use periods! Believe you me, if he had been in my lit class, he would’ve flunked.”

“Let’s get back to the plot.”

“It didn’t have a plot. Just a jumbled mess of run-on sentences that bounced incoherently from topic to topic like drops of water on a hot grill.”

“Mrs. Happert, I don’t think that’s fair. At the novel’s beginning, he describes his early life that could have been grafted right out of a Dickens’ novel. Never knew his father, abandoned by his mother, shipped off to France as a toddler. I admit, though, that any thought of plot is subsumed to his jazzy, coffeehouse-propelled beatnik-riffs:

‘Oh no not at all I’m no old geezer with a squeaky voice I’m still a kid with his memory intact projecting into the bright infinite future growing up in the darkest and lightest of times on his little island of Me yes Me-Me-Me that’s all it is on and the consciousness of me of man on earth and it’s the Great Memory no end to it the silent dead march the live march of time in consciousness. . . . of course I remember everything about me-me-me and the rest of the world does not exist Oh it’s time it’s time and time again And do we have a plot does anyone does someone or everyone have a plot if not a plot then a story line. . .’

I love that passage. What did you like about the book?”

She held it up like the handkerchief of a hay-fever sufferer. “Well, it’s less than 200 pages, and I do admit that I loved all of the foreign phrases, French, Latin, Italian.”

“What about his zest for life and humanity, his enthusiasm that spills off the pages? His writing zips unmoored from punctuation, wild flights of ideas and sensations and possibilities and impossibilities, daring the reader to grab a noun a verb an adjective and hang on.” I stopped for a breath. “An intense love letter to language, literature, life and liturgical lambastings.”

She shook her finger. “Quit showing off. Alliteration is so cheap.”

“His writing is free of grammatical prescriptions and sentence construction. He rejects punctuation to directly immerse his readers in his words.” She had that scary tsk-tsk-tsk look. “Like Beckett, Joyce, and Faulkner. Like driving without obeying stop signs.”

“Remind me to take a cab home,” she grumbled. “Don’t forget his profanity. I expected so much more from you, I’ll have you know.” She pulled her thick glasses off her face.

I opened the book again. “Here’s another of my favourite passages.”

“You sure have a lot of favourites.”

“That’s what you taught me! To love the words on the page and how they sound.”

“Don’t you dare blame me for your liking this mess!”

“I know you’ll like this passage, Mrs. Happert:

‘Ah well am I raving/yes indeed I am It’s the rage to live It’s a rave a huge/high known as living a rave of living and breathing a/rave of loving and breathing and flying on Ecstasy that/drug of being of simply being alive It’s a kind of/madness and am I mad or just crazy. . . .’”

“Sounds like a crazy drug addict.”

“His love of life remains so vibrant, even at his age. His language seduces his readers down poorly-lit, dusty alleys of consciousness. Ferlinghetti touches on religion, sex, politics, memory, technology. He drops jokes or references and darts to the next thought or literary allusion.”

“Slow down, you’re looking a bit red in the face.” She slid a bottle of water toward me. “Sorry, but his style just makes me dizzy. I wouldn’t even categorise him as a proper writer. Give me Galsworthy any day.”

I looked down at my notes. “How about some subversive wordplay. American society is an ‘Autogeddon,’ which brilliantly politicises the word Armageddon and solders it to climate change and climate deniers and how combustion engines are fueling the world’s demise [Ed. Although – just to intrude – Julian Cope sang ‘Autogeddon Blues’ back in 1994 – but Lawrence may not be a follower of the Arch-Drude]. Another line reminds us of his decades and decades of political activism: ‘are we all ingested by our omnivorous consumer society our dominant TV military-industrial perplex sometimes tending toward corporate fascism.’ And he jokes about the planet’s overpopulation: ‘Oh for a little erectile dysfunction before the earth bursts its latitudinals with . . . no end to the eternal rutting and breeding.’”

“Language! I’ll have you know there is a lady present.”

I ignored her. “Here are some more lines that I loved: ‘the blackboard eraser of failing memory,’ which obvious resonates for a man who just turned 100, and ‘isn’t consciousness itself the only real god for all of us Yeah just think of it. . .’

“I will not stand for blasphemy!”

“Oh, speaking of blasphemy: ‘Let us prey or pray . . . where you must watch out for the serpent that snakes around the tree and whose scales are separate sins.’ That’s an entire essay’s worth of puns. And here’s another idea that will clutch your Catholic cockles in a cassock: ‘so now flay me down to sleep I pray my Lord my soul to keep which is the grandest science fiction.’”

“Maybe you should be attending church once in a while, too. Are you done?”

My favourite English teacher was scowling at me. I shouldn’t have broached Catholicism. “Not yet. My luddite tendencies appreciate this observation about the sad, pernicious ubiquity of smartphones: ‘four young guys with backpacks stride by each on his cell phone talking to someone else somewhere else and instead of Be Here Now it’s Be Somewhere Else Now.’ Mrs. Happert, any last thoughts about Ferlinghetti’s novel, Little Boy?”

“This is not a novel, young man! Did I fail to teach you the rudimentary aspects of my favorite literary form? It’s not too late for me to change your grades.”

“Ok, it’s a collection of pages on which ink has been carefully applied in coded patterns to convey meaning and bound in a rectangle that can be slipped into a pocket or bag.”

“Sarcasm is so unbecoming in my best student.”

I picked up Ferlinghetti’s Little Boy, opened it randomly, and started to read.

Any Cop?: If bewilderingly entertaining flights of narrative fancy are your bread and jam, then eschew the opinion of Mrs. Happert and dive into this celebration of life and love and sex and failing and dying. Happy Birthday, LF!

“Chris, will you please call me a cab?”

 

 

Chris Oleson

 

 

 

 

 

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