Friday, May 25, 2007

A Tale of Two Parties

I recently read E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News. Set in an economically depressed Newfoundland town that’s kind of creepy as well as quirky, it was a lot of fun to read. Like a gallery of pencil sketches, bristling with odd details, that you are free to color in yourself.

One memorable scene is the farewell party for Nutbeem, a British expat who’s spent over a year outfitting a boat with which to make his escape. In Proulx’s words, the party ends up having “more in common with a parking-lot fight behind a waterfront bar than a jolly good-bye to Nutbeem.” When I finished reading the scene I immediately thought of the party for Doc in John Steinbeck’s classic Cannery Row. And then I thought of both of them in light of the posts on drinking I’ve done on this blog. (On the mythical origins of drinking and toasting and On the not-so-mythical outcomes of drinking and toasting.)

Both Proulx and Steinbeck seem to emphasize the ritual aspect of these parties. Each has a specific raison d’ĂȘtre that has been collectively agreed upon: the one is to bid farewell to Nutbeem; the other is to repay Doc for earlier events gone sour. Both authors describe the individual and collective preparatory action: securing valuables (including dependent children); hoarding supplies (especially drink, but also food); bathing (in the case of the flophouse bums on Cannery Row); and music selection. Steinbeck’s party is more structured, but both include drinking to excess, music, food, verbal pursuits (i.e. poetry or storytelling), and, notably, both parties come to a climax that includes fighting and destruction of property.

What is interesting to me is that the trajectories of these two parties are, as described by the authors, inevitable and even inherent. Both authors emphasize the organic, fluid nature of the party as a collective creation. That alcohol is the number one necessity is clear, and that its “inspirational” qualities allow the impulses behind the parties to be realized is implied. In Cannery Row, the activities that take place at the party reestablish the normal order and good-feeling of the neighborhood. In The Shipping News, the party and its culmination in the deliberate and wanton destruction of Nutbeem’s boat reveal the anger, envy, resentment and frustration of the men of Killick-Claw, who are trapped into either staying in this poor little town or leaving it. Both parties, ultimately, are expressions of the natural order and condition of the participants.

The aftermaths of the parties are also similar, in that both honorees (Nutbeem and Doc) seem fully accepting of the destruction. There is no anger, perhaps because there was no malice intended. Especially in the case of Nutbeem, it’s almost as if the outcome is preordained and as such, he takes it as a positive:

“I wouldn’t have made it anyway,” he said. “Storm coming. Gale warnings, sleet, snow, followed by deep cold, the whole string of knots. By Tuesday there’ll be fast ice. I wouldn’t have made it.”

Although, in fact, Nutbeem does leave Killick-Claw, by air if not by sea, it hardly matters, because the collective has spoken. Regarding ritual, Durkheim says, “men celebrate it to remain faithful to the past, to keep for the group its normal physiognomy…” I think it’s fascinating the way these parties do just that, in highly dramatic fashion.

Are there any other good party scenes out there?