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Sousaphone Sugar Mouse


Most of us English majors are created with a certain Anglophilia baked within.  When we formally study the deployment of our own language, we tend to read a great deal from the culture which originated it.  A certain fondness for Great Britain, perhaps bred in self-defense, tends to follow.

So thanks to a near-lifetime of submersion in BritLit, a great deal of Top Gear consumption, and probably eight to twelve hundred too many Mary Poppins viewings in early childhood, I consider myself slightly more tuned in to English culture than your average American, most of whom, thanks to EPCOT, royal wedding media barfage, and the latest explosion in Pride and Prejudice chick-lit spawn, are pretty much under the impression that our progenitors to the East either spend their days strolling terraced estates on the arm of Colin Firth or passing Buckingham Palace on double-decker busses as Simon Cowell shrieks insults over a loudspeaker.  I therefore felt safe in reading Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch (the book about soccer, a sport with which I am familiar, not the celluloid horror about Drew Barrymore and Curt Schilling, an abomination with which I wish I were not.)

But apparently there's a bit more to soccer and modern life in England beyond knowing which end is the bonnet and which is the boot and what a "cup-tie" is, and I am left with this book in my hand, staring at these scattered bits of notebook paper which are in the process of becoming a manuscript of my own.  These are my notes at the moment. We need to talk.We have several daily conversations, the ripped-up parts of hotel pads and napkin edges and I, about what they want to say and how I want to say it and where the flugelhorns are supposed to go.  Lately we've had to let Fever Pitch in on the negotiations.

Here's the thing about writers when we read:  We can't enjoy it.  We're always stepped back from the page, shredding the syllables apart.  Every single word we consume teaches us something, even if that lesson stands as "DO NOT EVER MASH WORDS TOGETHER IN THIS PARTICULAR MANNER."   Even when we supposedly read for fun, it's never fun.  It's work.  It's "What a nightmare of a sentence.  I wish I were dead" and "Oh sweet merciful heavens, adverb fail."  Occasionally it's "That's a damn fine verb choice" or "I hate you so much for making me care about the mating habits of flamingos like this."  When it sucks, we mentally file it away so that we know how not to do it and hurl the book into the library donation barrel abyss; when it's good, we stick it on a shelf and glower jealously for a while, then take it down every now and again for a re-read and deconstruction to figure out how the author figured it out, this tug of war with letter arrangement.

And what has Mr. Hornby taught me in Fever Pitch, after his High Fidelity (again, the original, literary unCusacked version) won a place on my shelf for its brilliant structure, hilarious asides, and brutally honest character development?  He has taught me what it must be like for people who don't know English to gaze upon the English language.

Hornby writes earnestly of "Bert Trautmann playing goal with a broken neck in '56" and "Tottenham's Double team in '61" and adds that "Everyone has a soft spot for Peters and Moore and Hurst and Brooking and the West Ham 'Academy', just as everyone loathes and despises Storey and Talbot and Adams and the whole idea and purpose of Arsenal."  And so on and so forth, for many, many paragraphs.

At one point, while discussing a superstitious ritual he and his friends developed, he mentions biting theSugar mouse in the wild. head off something called a "sugar mouse," then tossing it in the road.  This stopped me cold.  "Sugar mouse?"  WTF?  It was almost surely sort of candy treat, maybe like a Peep, but... these people eat something called "spotted dick," which is a custard.  I ran for the nearest Firefox browser. 

And thus was an otherwise effective chapter on the relationship between rituals and control deflated by the necessity of navigating through the usual Internet horrors one might expect when Googling photos using the word "sugar".

Thanks to context, I understand the larger point here, which is about life and sports and the terrible, glorious, telling intersection between the two, and when that point is clear, this book is a terrific one.  But because Hornby's editor didn't how know to tell him to STFU, in order to reach that point, I must first dig through Peters and Moore and Hurst and Brooking and the West Ham "Academy", and unless you know yooge amounts about European soccer, I pretty much lost you at Bert Trautmann, didn't I?

In grad school we discussed "function of the writing following the style," meaning that since Honrby's book is about a clenched-up obsessive, then it's effective for the writing to be maddeningly littered with stats and facts, names and dates.  It allows the reader to enter the mind of a person whose life is pretty much run by professional soccer, thus innately developing the effectiveness of the piece.  The musical equivalent is "text painting" or "word painting."  But, my people, I ask you:  When I inform you in a first-person piece that I am directionally impaired, do you really want to follow me down Glenway Avenue in Cincinnati, to Lawrence, to Bridgetown, back to Glenway, and over to Boudinot via Queen City before realizing that the mysteriously vanished Hair Cuttery I have in mind is in fact located in Virginia?  (You shan't be at all surprised to learn that yes, this actually happened.)

I don't need to know who Jimmy Husband is to appreciate this passage about how the emotional downside of fandom is balanced by the automatic common ground it grants:  "If you can walk into a school full of eight hundred boys, most of the older, all of them bigger, without feeling intimidated, simply because you have a spare Jimmy Husband in your blazer pocket, then it seems like a trade-off worth making."  That's intelligent, accessible writing.  An avalanche of non-essential details on who managed which match on which pitch, however-- you put down the book, gaze upwards, and begin hopefully scanning the skies for large and rapidly approaching meteors.

That is an impulse I do not want to create for my readers when I begin hurling them into this world of sousaphones and baton clinics.  I have an advantage on Hornby with this book of mine on The Ohio State University Marching Band-- I was once in the place of most of my potential readers:  "Well!  A marching band.  That's very nice.  I want pie."  His familiarity, however, has been assimilated and pressed into his being over decades, and he probably can't ever remember not knowing what the referee signal for off-sides is. 

Hornby, knotted in the ecstasy and turmoil of his fandom, can't see past his own Arsenal jersey; he must include clarification about which season yielded which center fielders, because it's so vitally important to him.  But in the process, he often fails to make it about what great literature is always about:  You.  Shakespeare doesn't stand today because people give two craps about what the shipping trade was like in Venice in 1597.  But you stand a good chance of seeing The Merchant of Venice performed somewhere in America in 2012 because everybody everywhere knows what it's like to experience mercy, negotiate cultural clashes, and fight through maddening games with love as the final object.  The Merchant of Venice isn't about Portia and Antonio and Shylock at all, then; it's about you.  You connect with it; you respond to it; and then you want your kids to attend a school which also demands that they read it.

I've already fallen into the same trap Hornby did, speaking the language of those only in my neighborhood to those who live across town, and I did so less than a year after I threw up my hands in one of many attempts to understand the in-culture lingo of OSUMB once I first started researching it without an Obi-Wan to steady my hand on the lightsaber. 

It happened this January, in a Jacksonville hotel after the Gator Bowl.  Two Ohio State fans saw me speaking with some members of the Band in the lobby, flattered me immensely by asking how many years I'd been a member of it, and then, once I issued a hasty correction, wanted to know if women were allowed to dot the i during Script Ohio.  Yes, I said, and had been for quite some time, and in fact some women did so this season.  Well, how does one get to dot the i?  It depends, I said, on seniority, rank, and how many ramps one has marched, and-- 

They stopped me.  "What's 'march a ramp'?"

There:  By lapsing into jargon and closed vocabulary, I'd made a beautiful, important, informing marching band moment just... a marching band moment.  They wanted grand tales of strutting down the field, cap plumes waving and fireworks bursting; I'd tossed the headless body of a sugar mouse into their laps.  I might well have been discussing East Mesopotamian textile production techniques.  I backed up right quick, but the thread of the conversation had frayed.

May that time be the last.  Meanwhile, if anybody needs to know anything about Bert Trautmann, I am... not your girl.

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