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What Do You Know About Men?

I always liked Dick Cavett; or I find him an interesting version of the public intellectual, is more like it. He didn’t exude a dullard vibe like Mike Douglas or Joey Bishop or Merv Griffin or any of the panoply of guys back then with a camera and someone standing by with everyone’s agent in their rolodexes. But he’s a boneless fish, and when the real barracudas show up, he’s as powerless as the rest of them.

He should have stuck to talking to his fellow swirlie victims, endlessly exchanging pointed pointless barbs with Gore Vidal or Truman Capote or some other invertebrate, or phony tough guys like Norman Mailer or the Garp fellow (his name escapes me now). Maybe a sportswriter now and then. You could flip the channel back then and seen his polar opposite twin William F. Buckley worrying the dictionary and a functionary at the same time, and acting like owning a yawl and knowing how to fix dinner on a gimballing alcohol stove meant you were Francis fucking Drake. It was much the same. No one in that milieu knows what to do when confronted with a real, live man.

Look at Burton. Every pint is written in his face, every cigarette in his voice. His eyes are living in the ruins of his head like fires in a cave. His mouth is perfectly fixed in the shape of Shakespeare and the pony glass. He is a mountain, and Cavett is an ant trying to climb all over him that can’t even get off the ground. Burton does not listen to the questions, he just waits. There’s a moment in there, towards the end, where Burton dismisses even Cavett’s intellect, which is all he’s got; and he does it in such a way that only a man with a foot on a rail and a glass in his hand and dust in his lungs would understand.

THE GREAT MAN’S house. The daughters of the men who cracked his anthracite cracked oysters for him in there. The girls would come home and say they had a place in the great man’s house and would rub shoulders with quality, pa. The fathers knew him, though. A werewolf. A vampire. They would sit silent with their black faces and their watery eyes at the kitchen table and know what it meant to turn your children over to such men. They’d say nothing because there was nothing to say.

    They turned their sons over to the collieries. There was honor there — and shame. A man hopes for better for his children than he got. Nothing ever gets better in a mine. You come out every day like the womb. Born again. Or not. The great man would read of the little men like insects that worked in his seams, dead of the gas or the great hand of gravity. It was a story from far away, as their very daughters cracked his oysters.

    The men would see their sons fight back the plain fear that showed in their eyes as the sky passed away and the rank earth swallowed them for their labors, and feel pride, too. No man is ashamed of his son at his elbow in a mine. He is ashamed of himself, maybe.

    What is a man to do? A Welshman might as well be a black ant. He’s got the instinct to go down and up in that little hole and he can’t help himself. He knows no other thing until he knows nothing forevermore. He does what he does. And the great man did what he did. He saw the man’s weakness, and his strength, and used one to get the other.

    The great man had the other great men in his pocket. He could call out the guard on a whim. He could kill a man legal. He could kill him any which way. He could do as he pleased. He could live in the shadow of a boneyard in a palace and there were none dared to squeak. The men said we’ll vote and stick together, and the great man just put one more man in charge of them, the new black prince of the county with the thing with the letters behind him. It was organized, but not like you’d think. Things would go on behind a velvet curtain. If they drew it back you’d see the smirk of the hyena in there.

    Then there was no work. The union and the boss alike said no coal. The big machines and the kept men kept even the culm from us. The great man couldn’t mine the coal by himself, so he mined the banks and the government and the union and got his gelt just the same.

    The great man thought he knew men. But he did not know your father and his father. They knew the coal like he knew his oysters. They went into the woods where the seams lay close to the sky, and they began again. The very earth gave them what they always sought. The men sent to find them and stop them joined them instead. The trucks ran at night to the great glittering city where the coins slept in great vaults.

    The housemaids knew from where it came, for they had come from there themselves. They pressed the coins into the dingy hands at the alley gate and burned it in their own great man’s house. Their little hods filled with bootleg coal made a pyre for our great man.

    The great man’s house. Look on it.

(“Coal Breaker,” from The Devil’s In The Cows. Look on it.)

Day: September 17, 2011

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