The Soul’s Cistern: Jim Woster on Gerald Locklin’s The Dodger’s Retirement Party


The Dodger’s Retirement Party, Gerald Locklin, Aortic Books

In “The Dodger’s Retirement Party: A Novella of the Good Old Days,” Gerald Locklin’s longtime protagonist, English professor Jimmy Abbey, attends the titular party of one of the owners of his once-favorite bar; as Abbey has drifted away from serious drinking, so has he drifted away from the bar and its crowd of regulars. The novella alternates between chapters about this gathering, which is also a reunion, and chapters about Abbey’s shared past with these and absent friends. Several of the chapters – and the book includes poems as chapters, but let’s not take the time to address what a “novella” is or isn’t – have been published elsewhere, and except for the overriding narrative arc of the party, the book’s structure is reminiscent of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son: a collection of stories about the same protagonist that you could either call a novel or a collection of stories, whichever.

In his poem “The Penultimate Day” (which isn’t in this book), Locklin describes the work of “his favorite kind of author:” “plenty of dialogue, not much description/mostly scenic construction.” That’s “The Dodger’s Retirement Party.”

“The good old days.”

“The best.”

“We shall not see the likes of them again.”

“No, our crowd won’t.”

“Nobody will.”

“You may be right.”

“Come visit us in Florida. Piss on Daytona Beach.”

“I may do both.”

“Nah, you won’t.”

“You’re right; I probably won’t.”

Locklin’s passages of dialogue are immensely readable, but more than once I had to count back along the paragraphs to figure out who was speaking. On a not unrelated note, I have to say, to find a writer as unconcerned with le mot juste as Locklin, you would have to turn to genre fiction.

… Jimmy sees approaching him from across the room a woman who has put on a few pounds since he knew her in the insouciance of youth …

Or:

… Jimmy would love to get under the covers with her in the privacy of his darkened room.

Or the unpardonably cutesy-pie:

… “We’re big girls, Dr. Abbey.”

It is an unfortunate remark, since the speaker is quite prominent in two anatomical features.

“The insouciance of youth?” “Under the covers?” “Two anatomical features?” Come on! Are you on a deadline? One of those underground-fiction deadlines?

While the previous excerpts struck me (hard) for their first-draft-ness, it’s not surprising that they all happen to concern women and sex. Among literature’s hounds, Jimmy Abbey has few peers … James Bond, maybe, except Bond didn’t have the obstacle of marriage to work around … on the other hand, Bond didn’t need as much alcohol to fuel his pursuits as Abbey does.

In one scene, in an after-hours club, Abbey is with a woman he’s known for awhile, “massaging her pussy deeply and with acceleration,” and he tells her:

“Soria, I would never be faithful to you.”

“I know.”

“You resent me seeing other girls because you want to reverse the double standard. You want to fuck every man that interests you, and you want them all to be faithful to you.”

“That’s right.”

“And what you resent about me is that I have succeeded in getting away with exactly that double standard that you would like to enjoy in your life.”

That double standard is the axis around which Abbey’s sex life spins and spins, and in this and other stories and novels about him, he enforces it ruthlessly.

One section of the novella concerns Abbey’s relationship with Marge, one of his students. What mainly ruins this relationship for Abbey is Marge’s thick ankles – she tends to wear long skirts, and it takes sleeping with her at least twice before he notices this unfortunate fact: “There was nothing less attractive to him than thick ankles. He simply could not be semi-permanently associated with a girl with thick ankles. That was simply the way it was.” He proceeds to sabotage the relationship:

So the next time they were together, he got very drunk and fell asleep in her bed, and when he came to, the sun was up. When he demanded why she had let him sleep, she said that he had been walking around the house so she assumed he was awake. An occasional sleepwalker throughout his life, he knew that she was probably telling the truth, but he stormed out of the place anyway. He arrived to find his wife, eight months with child, sitting up on the couch. It was not the first time he’d been out till dawn, nor the latest he’d arrived home, but he said, “I’m sorry; it won’t happen again.” And went to bed.

Because Locklin’s fiction tends to deal with the quotidian – for example, another section of the novella concerns Abbey and a restaurant owner discussing other restaurants – when the narrative gets deep into the soul’s cistern, it’s more disturbing than it would be in fiction that’s essentially “about” the soul’s cistern. Surely there’s none of Jimmy Abbey’s ugliness in me, the reader thinks. Right? In this, Locklin’s fiction has much in common with the workaday autobiographical stories of Harvey Pekar’s comic book American Splendor.

Gerald Locklin is best known for his poetry. This is as it should be, since his poetry is so distinctly his, one can recognize one of his poems without attribution. There is no greater artistic accomplishment than that.

But throughout his long career, Locklin has regularly written infectious American fiction, with an emphasis on American: This is what happened, baby, who’s got time for subtext? “The Dodger’s Retirement Party” is an excellent introduction to Locklin’s fiction, and to Jimmy Abbey.

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Jim Woster lives in Los Angeles and is the writer for the sketch comedy group Oh, You and Your Bone Spurs.

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