Review by Eero Talo
Shoat Rumblin: His Sensations and Ideas
by Samuel Delany
Independently Published, 2020
The novel has two axes of development: lateral developments that allow us to tell the stories of a greater number of people, and vertical developments that deepen our understanding of lives already within the literary imagination. The vertical axis is closely related to poetry and marked by the apprehension of new images that transform everyday surfaces. The lateral axis is related to drama and its suspension of surfaces that transmit character through monologue. While Samuel Delany is a lateral author, his achievement on this axis is often so radical as to render new surfaces for literary consideration. Certainly this arises from his storied career in the speculative genres; but late Delany is a hard-nosed realist. And yet a pornographer. His recent novel Shoat Rumblin: His Sensations And Ideas is an exploit in pornographic realism.
The title recalls Walter Pater’s 1885 bildungsroman Marius The Epicurean: His Sensations and Ideas, which supplies the germ of the plot as it follows the intellectual growth of a young man who strives to modulate his philosophy to remain inclusive of sensual pleasure. In Pater’s work, this balance draws Marius toward Christ and a burgeoning Christianity. For Delany, the product is secular, a kind of human excellence as Diogenes knew it. A painting of the ancient street-philosopher shares the cover with Brewster McCloud, and presides as guiding spirit over the text that comes down to us, as Diogenes’ wisdom does, in the oral tradition, with the header over each chapter, “Shoat Rumblin, as recorded in the Journals of Adrian Rome,” Shoat’s life partner and amanuensis.
Having never made it further than the seventh grade, Shoat’s storytelling is heady and coarse; his syntax doesn’t sparkle, but Adrian is a demanding listener and loads the narration with a granular level of detail about the environment, a copiousness also found in 2011’s Through The Valley Of The Nest Of Spiders, that bolts the physical world to itself, disabling the imagistic digressions and rhetorical structures by which prose normally passes for literary. This is a stylistic compromise: Delany avoids a standard literary treatment, with its internal frissons that abstract characters from their environment and from their bodies, in order to probe the interstices that form in sexual combinations between characters. At a functional level, promiscuity is a device that draws a lot of different people into the story.
And Shoat meets a lot of people. He and his dad, Buck, are exceptionally hung and highly democratic. Their lust is gravitational, pulling into their orbit friends and strangers, including the novel’s most intrepid creation, a homeless, itinerant PhD dropout and “stoned cocksucker” who shucks his government name for the more-fitting title of Scumbag. Buck brings him home from work (he’d been sleeping by a dumpster behind the depot) on Shoat’s fifteenth birthday as a gift with long-term potential, depending on his son’s enthusiasm for the idea. Scummy stays on for the rest of the novel, about three hundred pages, and pays indefatigable attention to father and son, sustaining what has to be one of the most extraordinary romances in literature.
There is a distinction worth making here between a romantic notion of homelessness, and a romance with a homeless person. Scummy is the most intelligent character in Shoat Rumblin. He cannot be talked into or out of anything. He comes to live with Shoat and Buck because he loves sucking cock, but he stays on with them because an extreme physical compatibility grows into a genuine fondness that he is able to articulate alongside the material benefit he derives from their companionship. Actually, the two are somewhat related, as we find out when Shoat presses him to explain why someone as educated as he is unable to provide his own shelter:
But after a while, if it’s only me I’ve got to help, I just do less and less — and pretty soon I’m not doing anything. I start drinking so that the time’ll pass faster. Soon I’m just sitting by a dumpster in an alley, waiting to go to the mission and get me a sandwich or some soup — when I remember to. Then it’s back to the dumpster again. And hoping between one and the other I’m going to get hold of a bottle. But with Buck and you to help out, I’ve got somebody to do for.
The answer is so arbitrary, so pitiful and direct, we cannot fail to see how it dovetails with his sexuality, swirling around the imperative to be of use. This characterization is a lateral achievement in Delany’s work at the same time as it grows out of his compromise with literary fiction, reliant as it is on the production of images that transform the physical world, a process that would ultimately lavish away the material conditions of homelessness, and therefore frustrate attempts at its realistic representation.
In the case of incest between Buck and Shoat, there is no line of correct execution prior to this work (though Through The Valley Of The Nest Of Spiders contains a partial forerunner in the relationship between Dynamite and Shit). At the technical level, there is the brute fact that a lifelong relationship composed of protection, guidance, and friendship, that expands to include the sensual dimensions of a sexual bond, drastically increases the amount of information at play as well as its potential for resonance. But these are aberrant mathematics, since incest, and its kindred sexual practice pedophilia, are often the limits to the sinusoidal trajectory of sexual discourse, such that our visible attempts at a positive representation, at least of incest, quite popular in online porn, treat the subject in the most facile way possible. The relationship between Buck and Shoat is not facile. It is explicit and serious, and it is one of great beauty and depth.
Given what we learn about Buck’s upbringing in rural poverty, with its attendant woes of alcoholism and crime, it is counted a miracle that he manages to survive, avoid jail, and settle in the city (either in Kansas or Colorado, Shoat doesn’t specify). He is, however, illiterate, having pissed himself out of school in the third grade, and his personal hygiene is minimal. The man is just on this side of civilization. But he loves himself, and he loves his child, who is as big, dumb, and incontinent as his old man. Which is fortunate, because Shoat’s mom, Irene, doesn’t want anything to do with him; in fact she hates her child: hates how he smells, how he thinks, how he looks. Shoat often overhears her say, either to a friend or to Buck, that he makes her so miserable she wishes she could kill him.
So Buck becomes the active parent, valorizing Shoat’s precocious body (with slight caveats here and there: don’t pick your nose so openly, don’t jerk off in the street), because he reasons that a failure to assimilate should not lead Shoat down a life of repression. Again, there is a distinction worth making between an active rebellion against norms, and a life of covert
depravity that means to menace no one. Buck doesn’t tell Shoat to go out and beat a cop with his club-like cock, but he’s very proud of his equine son and cuts a hole in Shoat’s pocket so the boy can play with himself in public without fear of indecent exposure. Their relationship grows in this way, by degrees, until Irene abandons the family in a fit of disgust. By that time, Shoat and Buck are aware that they have the same habits and the same tastes, and they occasionally end up sharing the couch and a dirty movie.
It takes the arrival of Scummy, who becomes the intersection of their lust, for Shoat and Buck to begin an easy exchange of kisses, say, while the cocksucker fiddles beneath them, and soon all three are sharing the same bed. Then Buck gets drunk one night and bottoms for Shoat. The text marks the extravagance of this scene with a rare image:
Anyway, I was giving it to Buck in his asshole and pretending I was getting sucked off by Scummy, who was right there in front of him, sucking off Buck. For a moment, I felt like I’d gone in so deep, my dick was right inside my daddy’s, there in Scummy’s mouth; and I could feel him sucking on it, like Buck’s dick was just a big condom I was wearing, inside Scumbag’s mouth.
This is an instance of protection and intersubjectivity that points to a new surface in literature, founded by the lateral effort to narrate the affections of a very unusual trio, and secured by the vertical effort to apprehend in their affections a new image.
On the grimmer side of Shoat Rumblin, there are two depictions of rape; the first seeps into the text as news coverage of an incident in a neighboring town, and the second is recorded in grizzly detail as it occurs to Shoat: this scene is difficult to read. As pornography demands its catalogue of sensations, and censorship would negate the genre, Delany writes a kind of atonal music composed of the body horror in the torture and the associations the rapist, Jonnah Wilkes, is allowed to develop in a villain monologue. When Jonnah accuses Shoat and his dad of gang-raping Irene, we experience a heterotopic fault between a possible combination of characters and the actual incidents of familial abuse their combination produced earlier in the novel. Jonnah winds up on the wrong side of the disjuncture because his investment in a discourse of innocence drives him to graft information from the news reports onto an afflicted chivalry. Contact with these distortions produces an effect of tragedy, rather than indictment, flush with the satisfaction of watching the assailant fall on his sword.
For characters who are merely confused, but fundamentally good people, this technique casts a kind of magical plasticity over the babble of patriarchal and homophobic (read: broadly hegemonic) posturing. Harris is the supreme achievement in this regard, the novel’s most incredible sleight of hand. Buck mentions him often (they’re coworkers), mostly as a byword for foolishness: we hear about him making fun of Buck’s tit-ring and scrawling swastikas and kill all faggots in the company bathroom. The punchline could easily be that he’s closeted. But the Harris we finally encounter in the penultimate chapter turns out to be something else altogether as the arc of his aggressive and homophobic speech gradually bends into nagging Shoat to jerk
off with him, which Buck explains is natural, since he and Harris have been jerkoff buddies for years, and later, sitting on the Rumblin couch and drinking his own piss from a milk carton, the verbal arc bends even further into the passive suggestion that he perform for Shoat a special act he puts on several times a year for select coworkers he designates as his Pig Pen, of which Buck (all-consenting) is a cherished member, which leads Harris, on the momentum of his own bullshit, to squat over the Rumblin living room table and expel an obelisk of fecal matter that he immediately wolfs down, sending the room into spasms of orgasmic applause.
Harris only asks that Buck keep it secret from the rest of the Pig Pen that he, the coprophage, gets off on his own routine, since that would be perverse. And he’s serious.
Harris really trusts Buck to reinforce the absurd notion that he is a regular guy. And Buck obliges this request, in a gesture that is neither magnanimous, nor repressive, but affirmative of a range of behaviors that so far exceed the associative drift of any identity category, it seems prudent to miss by as wide a margin as possible, so as to act into that margin unscanned by authenticity. This would be the aim of pornographic realism: to leave its surfaces intact so that they may compound normative behaviors into configurations that dislodge them from their discursive limits, thereby altering the basic grammar of relational units that cohere into regularity.
Eero Talo is a writer and filmmaker living in Queens, New York.