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Letters at 3AM

The return of GASCOYNE

By Michael Ventura, November 25, 2005, Columns

Before we proceed it must be noted that in GASCOYNE the word GASCOYNE is spelled in caps at all times, for reasons known only to Stanley Crawford. Stanley's 1966 novel, GASCOYNE, has been out of print for 35 years – a literary crime redressed this month by the Overlook Press. At last GASCOYNE, the character, is back from wherever GASCOYNE went. However, with beg-your-pardons to my friend Stanley, it is not the style of this newspaper to CAPITALIZE names, so from here on out GASCOYNE will be Gascoyne.

"Who is Gascoyne?" a radio newscaster blares. "What does he look like? Does he even exist? Many of us think we see him every day – a paper-thin old man driving an old car which in its day was just a little too flashy – but no one is ever certain."

There is nothing certain about him. Gascoyne (gas-coin, I guess) is a mix of Sam Spade played by Inspector Clouseau plus Howard Hughes played by Dr. Strangelove – or all of them played by Bill Murray. In 1966 Gascoyne does what everybody does now: spends most of his time in his car talking on the phone. But in 1966 no one but Stanley Crawford imagined that car-calls would one day epitomize American life. Gascoyne drives the freeways phoning orders that are not followed in attempts to solve problems he does not comprehend – 2005 to a T! Gascoyne's futile orders and mounting problems constitute our least-known great comic novel, a novel as prophetic as it is hilarious.

Many (this writer among them) have written novels about Los Angeles, yet in none but Gascoyne is L.A.'s paramount feature – traffic – a constant and prominent character. His car is Gascoyne's natural habitat. Anticipating the moms and commuters of today, Gascoyne eats, sleeps, and does business in his car, leaving it only when he must. His is a car with one James Bond-ish feature: "I've got an air horn ... that can be heard 10 miles away on a clear windless night but I've got to be careful when I use it because people just sort of shrivel up and die when they hear it and there's no telling what they'll do, some slam on their brakes right there and others run right off the road and some try to open the door and jump out, no telling what."

Gascoyne employs this air horn haphazardly, leaving multicar pile-ups behind him whenever he does so. He doesn't care.

Which is Gascoyne's primary personality trait. Human beings exist for Gascoyne only insofar as they serve his interests. Yet he is likable – perhaps because he's not a hypocrite. This is his sole virtue, but it is enough to make him likable, nay, loveable. There's nothing more tiresome or despicable than a bastard selling the proposition that he's stomping you for your own good. (Dick Cheney, take note.) Gascoyne can't be bothered with your own good, and he makes no bones of it. His motto: "If it doesn't pay it ought not to exist." Gascoyne is the epitome of capitalism: "If you don't keep people working like dogs they'll behave like rabbits and monkeys. You've got to keep them inside little boxes with their work and throw away the key for eight hours every day and then chase them out of the box as soon as you can after their time is up, give them fringe benefits like pastel toilet paper and maybe a Christmas party to make them feel grateful but otherwise if you give them an inch they'll ... start breaking up the place and develop loose morals."

According to Gascoyne, even George Washington can't get elected unless the fix is in. Assume every election is stolen, and you're a player. Put faith in democracy, and you're a sucker. Basic rule: What matters is what pays. If Dick Cheney for one moment in his life could be likable, he'd be Gascoyne's cousin, for Gascoyne says, "The secret of getting profits out of these nonprofit things is to get the government so confused they don't know where the money goes and pretty soon they don't care a damn." In 1966 Stanley Crawford saw that Halliburton was the wave of the future.

However ... Gascoyne utters his certainties in a context of continuous confusion, a little like a White House press conference. He is, like Bush, befuddled but determined. He will stay the course, though the course be a labyrinth – insisting all the while that his labyrinth is really a straight line. "Whatever I do now is a stab in the dark so I set off in the direction I think I was going in. ... Then it occurs to me that I might be going in one great big circle and I'm disturbed at not being able to do anything about it. ... Around now I think the worst must be over. But I still haven't got any idea of where I am. ... Still I keep in what I hope is a straight line. ... I keep on going and suddenly run into a stone wall with a stairway cut into it so I climb it. ... All I can say it's a bad day for somebody." A little later: "Suddenly I have the feeling which I mistake for that feeling that things are at last fitting together."

Gascoyne owns gas stations, supermarkets, real estate, banks, and a not-so-secret zoological warfare research facility. But though Gascoyne has a nameplate parking space in every important and/or secret building in Los Angeles, he may not control anything. Control may no longer be an option. Maybe it never was. Being on the phone all the time and giving orders and getting information may seem like control, but you never really know who or what is on the other end of the line, the cell, the laptop or PC. You never even know what kind of phone those other-end-of-the-line people use. It might be an "ancient phone," "you know the kind with things on wires you press to various parts of your body."

No one he speaks to can help. Gascoyne's alone out there. Which is a great theme of this classic comic novel: the isolation of power. Power can make many things happen (most of them bad), but what power makes happen rarely really furthers power's goals. The result is a slapstick confusion that we pathetically dignify with that solemn word "history."

Gascoyne is capable of giving a straight answer but he never gets one in return. Investigating a murder, he says to Police Commissioner O'Mallollolly, "I just want to know who did it." Answer: "As they say, it doesn't really matter because it was either you or me."

Gascoyne asks a pertinent question of a woman: "Now do you know anybody that likes to dress up like a giant tree sloth?" Answer: "No, I'd say everybody I know would like to do that at some time or other."

Gascoyne interviews a suspect: "You're lying again, Nadine." "Yes. I am." "Well?" "I have my reasons." "Name one." "Sometimes I just like to lie, that's all."

I feel a little sorry for my friend Stanley Crawford (as sorry as I can feel for a writer who's lots better than I am). In 1966, when you could count on the fingers of one hand the L.A. restaurants that were open after 10pm, Stanley knew America would soon be studded with "those continuous commercial boulevards with drive-in everything for ten miles, open twenty-four hours a day." He knew what was coming. He knew that the Great Continuous American Mall was about to arrive, and described it exactly as it exists in its present state. Before McDonald's became a national institution, Stanley knew there would be a "drive-in everything." At the time, even Stanley couldn't know how right he was. He must have hoped that this was all in his imagination, and that the future would be better and different. I know he's not happy that his vision turned out to be exact.

Gascoyne is about the fragility of power and the inevitability of powerlessness. You laugh out loud on every other page, because Stanley's slapstick prose often reaches the heights of Cervantes and Jonathan Swift, no kidding. But, as with those greats, you're really laughing at yourself. Because you never really know who's answering your cell phone. You never know what's real when media is your primary connection to the world. Changes will strip you of everything if you're unable to change. That's Gascoyne. What goes on at City Hall and the White House is really a 24-hour-a-day riot that Gascoyne describes in detail – and all the while you thought you were being governed. No, my dear, you're being raped. By a smiling Gascoyne. A Gascoyne as doomed to pointlessness as you are. And there's nothing for it but to laugh. Which is what Gascoyne makes you do repeatedly.

No wonder Stanley took refuge in the New Mexico mountains and became a farmer (while continuing to write brilliant books). He noticed that the key to our so-called civilized life was always left "under a couple of mounds of that artificial plastic dogshit you can buy at your local novelty store." He gave us Gascoyne, a truly prophetic comic novel, in which to see ourselves – then bade us good riddance and goodbye. end story

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