Sock (Penn Jillette)

Posted: January 23, 2015 in fiction
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My room is full of books that I’ve read three or four chapters of, half-completed job applications, and knitting projects I’m a third of the way into. I felt it to be a victory that I finished this book, because it means that I’m making some progress somewhere.

This is a novel written by a professional magician and narrated by a stuffed animal. That makes it sound much more infantile than it actually is.

Lumberjack sock stuffed with a woman’s nylons. Yeah, the old lady washed them. She washed me all. I was created clean, but that smell is deep. Deep. Deep. It’s a smell of the soul, and my soul is a lumberjack’s sole. I’ve been worn. My soul has walked miles of barbed wire to smell the nylons of my innards.

Hustler eyes, lumberjack skin, the heart of a woman’s legs, and a grandmother’s spoiling love. I got it all, baby. I got it all, my little baby boy. Drool on me. Grab me. Carry me. Rip me apart. I’m a bad monkey.

The Little Fool calls me “Dickie.” That’s my name.

“Why do you call him ‘Dickie’?” the parents ask.

“Because he’s dickie colored,” the Little Fool answers.

They laugh. They laugh at how cute the Little Fool is.

But he’s lying. He learned how to lie from my button eyes. He calls me “Dickie” because it’s the baddest word he knows. And I’m the baddest wammerjammer monkey he will ever love.

He will rip me apart with his love. And he will grow big. He will be very big. And he will never forget me.

And I’ll love him forever like a bad monkey. Like a very bad monkey.

The self-aware sock monkey starts off with himself, but after the first couple of chapters he gets out of the way and lets the story happen. Mostly. You see, the Little Fool (aka protagonist) left his radio on all the time, so the monkey’s head is full of song lyrics. The blurb on the back of the book says that he “references a treasure trove of 1970s and 1980s pop culture,” but those two decades are just a starting point. The Beatles, the Gershwins, Marcy Playground, and September 11, 2001, all get referenced as well. Sometimes it’s kind of obvious, as with the sex and candy references, but sometimes you have to work for it, as in “silent raindrops fell and echoed in the wells” – I was rather proud of myself for recognizing Simon and Garfunkel in that one. Honestly, I didn’t catch probably more than half of his references, but that’s okay. I studied literature in school to develop the habit of letting the confusion wash over me and constructing meaning from the driftwood of sense that stays on the beach of consciousness.  Dickie mentions his name here in the first chapter, but it’s not really important. He usually calls himself “his monkey,” because he has no consciousness independent of the Little Fool, and because he was serious about loving him.

The Little Fool is not little. I don’t think he’s really a fool either. And as for The, well, there are so many little fools in the world that the determinate article can hardly be appropriate either. Nevertheless.

When you see the Little Fool, when you love the Little Fool, you want to call him something like the Little Fool. “Callow Youth” was what Irving chose. He was so close to the real sock monkey name. One quick consultation with the Sock and he would have changed to “the Little Fool.” He’s not little and he’s not a fool, but he thinks of himself that way, and those who love him should use that true name.

We’re not dealing with a child here, just a man who hung onto his favourite childhood toy. The Little Fool is all grown up, six to eight inches taller than I am, and significantly stronger because he’s a diver for the New York Police Department. He lives by diving into rivers of shit and chemical waste to drag up dead bodies. It’s not a total waste because it gives him a perfectly delightful body, and his mentor during his teen years gave him some useful advice about what to do with it. Irving’s not important to the story, but his advice is, and I think it’s good advice for straight men and lesbians.

Irving had said, “Ask the smart girls out. The mousey ones in the sweaters. The ones with glasses. The ones who are always reading. Get yourself into the advanced study groups and act like a punk. Check out what they’re reading. It’s Henry Miller and Anais Nin. The seduction has already been done by the best. Just go in and collect. The cheerleaders have to negotiate with the only commodity they’ll ever have. The smart girls, they’re waiting for you. Be a smart bad boy. And then just ask them. Make sure your looks will scare their parents, and then ask the smart girls. Don’t play games. Just ask.” How could all these others have won those Nobel Prizes and not Irving the year he had given that advice? It had changed the Little Fool’s life. The popular kids had been dating; the Little Fool had been working his way through the Kama Sutra.

I wish that someone would send this message through the community of people who are attracted to men. I’ve got glasses, sweaters, mousey hair, and the right reading material.

Irving’s advice led the Little Fool to Nell, whom we meet as a corpse he fishes out of the river. That’s right, we may begin with the childhood stuff, but this is actually a murder mystery. But it’s a sock monkey’s murder mystery, so there’s just the one dead body the Little Fool really cares about; the others are strangers. In a city the size of New York, it doesn’t really make sense for the protagonist to know the killer and more than one of the victims, but this is a novel. Tommy and the Little Fool solve the murder mystery, but they skip the genre’s less realistic conventions. Instead of using the bodies as pawns in a sick game between detective and murderer, our sock monkey focuses on the grief of the people left behind. There’s a lot about grieving for a book narrated by a sarcastic Freddie-Mercury-quoting sock monkey.

The Little Fool had been telling Stank stories about the Little Fool’s Mom and Dad. Wonderful stories. Funny stories. Stank didn’t laugh. He had kept wincing and looking away. Stank explained that he couldn’t bear to hear people with living, loving parents tell stories of that love. Stank could look into the eyes of filial love and see the future pain the parents’ deaths would cause his friends. Stank said it with a lot of carny ejaculations and slang, but that’s what he said. The Little Fool believed Stank was crazy and, well, Stank was indeed crazy, but he hadn’t been wrong. After Mom and Dad died, the Little Fool felt the same way. The Little Fool couldn’t stand people who had their parents, and loved them, talking about them. The embryonic pain living right below the surface, waiting to cause pain, was too much to take. Future bereavement for a loved one is a benign tumor that grows with love and gets malignant with death. Since Nell’s death, the Little Fool could see those tumors growing everywhere, in every couple. Every happy couple, laughing, nuzzling, holding hands, was just a few stopped heartbeats from pain bursting through one of their skulls. Bone-hard tumors of woe ready to burst through like the Elephant Man. The Little Fool looked at beautiful young women and knew that when they lost their biker boys in motorcycle accidents, those girls would be disfigured and drooling.

I’m sometimes amazed by how little death has affected my life. I have more family than anyone has a right to, but they just keep living, on and on. A hundred years ago, a thirty-five-year-old man would not still have three living parents, one grandparent, a couple dozen aunts and uncles, plus a few dozen cousins, six siblings, their spouses, and thirteen nieces and nephews, plus my own three children. Half of us at least would be dead. I’d probably be in the dead half of the family. I am not as grateful as I should be that we’re all still here. I don’t understand this grief. A good friend of mine just lost her father, and I feel helpless when I think of what she must be going through. Giving her the space to work through this with her partner seems to be the right approach, so I’m leaving them alone right now. The Little Fool, though, goes right up to the families of the dead women and joins with them. He’s dealing with Nell’s death, so it’s easy for him to empathize with them, and he needs to be with people who are feeling the same things that he is. Hence Tommy.

Tommy doesn’t fit with the current political narrative about gender and sexuality. Nowadays we’re all “born this way,” because the most effective way for us to be accepted by mainstream society is to tell them the lie that gender and sexual orientation are fixed binary positions. Sometimes I think that it actually harms us to focus so much on Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris. They’re the ‘good gays,’ and the rest of us are only good and only gay inasmuch as we reflect EDG and NPH. Well, the reality is, we’re not all fabulous. We don’t fart glitter or sneeze rainbows. We’re normal people. And sometimes we make conscious choices about things that the mainstream narrative says are genetically determined.

Tommy is a gay man. Okay, we can accept that. However, for several years in his youth, Tommy took hormone-replacement therapy because he wanted to improve his drag act. He didn’t feel like a woman trapped in a dick-ridden body; he never seems to have felt that the penis didn’t belong there. But his job was to make people think he was female, so he got all estrogened up without ever really insisting on a transgender identity. Once his popularity faded and it became clear that he had been replaced with younger queens, he got off the stage and quit taking the hormones. Now he’s a gay man, because he chose to be. Which is fine. He is a grown fucking man and can make his own choices about his body and sex partners. The Little Fool is a heterosexual man, again because he made a conscious choice to be so.

In high school, when the Little Fool had been a dietary aid (dishwasher) at the hospital, he worked with a cook who was very gay. The Little Fool talked to the cook about music. The cook, Charles, had given him Bette Midler and Yma Sumac records. Charles and the Little Fool became very close. Charles cooked special lunches for them to eat together in the walk-in refrigerator just to be wild. They talked about everything together. The Little Fool finally got up the nerve and asked Charles what homosexuals do. The Little Fool knew what heterosexuals do. He believed that homos had some real perversions. Charles went down the list of everything gays do, and there was nothing on the list the Little Fool couldn’t do some version of with a girl. Nothing. That was when the Little Fool decided not to be gay. If anything, gays had one less option. It was depressing.

So, this isn’t just a murder mystery. It’s also a gay romance. Again, it’s a sock monkey gay romance, so there’s no sex involved (that we can see). Tommy and the Little Fool meet because the Little Fool is investigating Nell’s death and Tommy was her best friend. They start working at solving the crime themselves, and they become more physically affectionate over time. The Little Fool starts taking his shirt off when he’s over at Tommy’s. He kisses Tommy sometimes. The sock monkey refers frequently to the love between them, and eventually the Little Fool starts dreaming about having anal sex with a girl who looks an awfully lot like Tommy. If they hadn’t solved the mystery, who knows what would have happened? But, for a book that thinks about sex almost as much as I do, there’s none actually going on. Just like me.

This is also an atheist novel. Belief isn’t so much mocked (most of the time) as it is shown to be completely insane. It reminds me of going to see my oldest brother. He went to the local Christian school for his business degree, so he ended up with a shit-ton of religion classes. He wanted to get an MDiv and become a pastor; that didn’t work out, but he still feels called to preach to everyone who gets close enough to listen. I end up nodding and going “uh-huh” a lot, because responding honestly would be like slapping him in the face, and the strength of his belief already crushes me. It feels like a weight he’s pressing on me that I can’t get out from under; in other words, it’s a bit like unexpected choke sex. You don’t know how you ended up in this position, it scares you, and there’s no way out, so you do what you can to survive until he’s done and leaves you alone.

The buddhist wasn’t a real buddhist – he was a college student buddhist. If it’s stupid to believe in a religion with a god who looks out for you, how stupid is it to believe in a religion that has no god watching over you? Buddhism is the slowest competitor in the Special Olympics that is religion.

The killer is religious, but he’s not one of those cartoonish religious people you see so often in fiction by atheists who have no idea what it’s all about – he gets it. He understands the stakes. And he lives accordingly. Of course there’s murder involved.

Imagine that as we sit here there’s a truck coming at me. And you see the truck. And you hear the truck. And you smell the truck. And you taste the smoke of the truck. And you feel the truck rumble the ground under your feet. And you know the truck is real. And it’s coming right at us. And you move out of the way, and you’re okay. And I look at you and say, “I don’t see the truck.” Do you say, “Well, you’re entitled to your opinion?” Remember you can feel the fucking truck. Do you smile and nod? No. You mention the truck again. You say, “Get out of the way.” You preach the gospel of getting out of the way of the truck. And if I still don’t listen, and if you love me like you should love all men, do you shrug and say, “Well, it takes all kinds”? At some point, if you’re a good person, you grab me and knock me out of the way of the truck. You hit me and you drag me and if you have a baseball bat you use it and you get me out of the way of that truck.

But that’s just to save my life from a truck. Life doesn’t matter. But the religious, those who know there’s a God, those who can see God, and smell God, and taste God, and hear God and feel God, know that it’s not just the loss of life they have to stop; it’s the loss of eternal life. If you would pull someone you didn’t really know out of the way of the truck, how could you not pull a person out of the way of the Atheism that would snuff out eternal life?

This is what religion is really about. Especially in America, today. Especially in the communities I’ve lived in. Damnation is hurtling at us all like an out-of-control tractor trailer coming down Cowee, and we’ve got to pull everyone out of the way before they die and go to hell. It has that urgency, that conviction, that fear. In some ways my brother scares me more than IS, even when I lived in the Kingdom of the Two Sacred Mosques. He’s not the only Christian who would kill for Christ.

Despite the fact that crazy religionists share a book with gender-ambiguous homosexuals, there’s no sex-shaming going on.

I’m speaking now of sane people. There are insane people who need to hate the people the insane people are sexually attracted to. Men and women who go to topless clubs feel the sexuality and believe the people who provide it are evil. We won’t be dealing with that level of wrong in this story. We’ll be dealing with decomposed dead bodies in raw sewage, huge puncture wounds, rage, pain and murder, but we won’t touch upon the kind of hate that’s contained in even the slightest anti-sex position. There are certain things a sock monkey can’t stomach. In my story, there is no one sick enough to have negative thoughts towards a stripper. We’re going to keep it clean and happy. Everything is beautiful.

So. It’s a sexy atheist gay romance murder mystery told by a sock monkey obsessed with the pop music of the entire previous century. There are all sorts of asides and seeming non sequiturs, but it all comes together beautifully. It’s a real shame that Penn Jillette doesn’t write fiction more often, but his very active professional life probably keeps him busy.

One of those nearly-finished knitting projects is a sock monkey that I started five or so years ago. Maybe I’ll finish it to remind me not to rely on imaginary friends. If faith is really like a drug (Jillette’s comparison), I’d like to stay clean.


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