Saturday, June 18, 2005

Lonesome Lonesome

Roderick Leyland’s, “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” (Eclectica, April/May 2005) starts off with a bang:

It’s a bugger when you bungle your first brain transplant. Isn’t it? Yeah, he knows what I mean. Blood, grey matter, bone fragments… Blimey! Was I on a learning curve! That’s what they say, these days, isn’t it? Not, I’ve got it wrong; but, I’m on a curve. I know the kind of curve I prefer. Don’t you, dear? Cor, look at her blushing under the pancake. I wear pancake too, love, but I’m not one of them. No, it prevents the lights burning me out, sweetheart, and stops me looking like a corpse. Who said, That wouldn’t make any difference? You wanna come up here, son, and try yourself? Yeah, you’re very brave, down there in the dark. Big gob, small dick.
This paragraph packs an awful lot into a few short sentences: it announces that the piece is going to be formally challenging, establishes the speaker as a stand-up comic, and gives him a particular sort of persona—he is vulgar and sexually aggressive, the sort of man who uses humiliation as a tool for seduction, who is able (or, more importantly, wants his audience to believe he is able) to shame a woman into bed and her boyfriend or husband into a sort of grinning acquiescence. (As for brain surgery and corpses, well—we’ll get to those later.) The stage seems set for turnabout—at some point, the reader suspects, our crude comic will get his comeuppance but good.

We are not disappointed. The voice, it turns out, belongs to one Ronnie Lonesome, the emcee of what appears to be a second-rate variety show. (Indeed, considering the allusions to blonde dancers, it appears to be vaudeville or even burlesque, which seems a bit strange, given the obvious contemporaneity of the piece.) And Ronnie Lonesome, of course, is only a stage name—and a clever one at that, invoking as it does not only the character’s loneliness but also, since it is taken from an Elvis Presley song, the sexual magnetism of The King. Our protagonist’s real name is Desmond Robinson, and over the course of the next seven or so pages he will indeed get what’s coming to him.

It is a clever stroke to make Lonesome a comic, because it naturally allows the piece to take the form of a modified dramatic monologue, typically the provenance of poetry, or, well, drama. The trick with dramatic monologues is to have their speakers unintentionally reveal something about themselves that they won’t or can’t state outright. (Robert Browning was a particular master of this—see, for example, his poem “My Last Duchess.”) And a performer with a shtick like Ronnie’s seems particularly ripe for this sort of treatment; we look forward to watching him hang himself with a rope woven entirely of his own words.

Does this actually happen? Not exactly. “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” defies our expectations in a number of ways, some satisfying, others not. The good news is very good indeed: Mr. Leyland is a gifted plotter; there are clues as to what is actually going on with Ronnie Lonesome scattered throughout the piece, but not until three-quarters of the way through does the bigger picture come into focus. Once we know the whole story, it is a pleasure to go back, find all the hints the author has dropped, and see how cleverly and seamlessly they have been fitted into the larger context of the work. For as it turns out, Ronnie Lonesome has bigger problems than mere boorishness—there is a tumor in his brain, which, we are led to believe, will likely kill him. Hence his opening joke about brain surgery, and the subsequent (better) joke about the make-up preventing him from looking like he’s dead. Ronnie also seems to suffer from olfactory hallucinations—he perceives odors that aren’t really there. Thus we get an early riff about odd smells and pretentious celebrity chefs.

Of course, the precarious state of Ronnie’s health transforms his bluster into something sympathetic—we see it not as the ranting of a cranky misogynist but instead as a dying man’s sad attempt to hold on to his self-respect. He is struggling to convince himself that he is virile, entertaining, popular; most of all he is struggling to convince himself that he is brave. One of the strongest bits in the piece stems from this struggle—here, Ronnie is talking to himself in the privacy of his dressing room, ostensibly preparing new material:

…she [Ronnie’s doctor] says [of the tumor], It’s the size of a pea.

I say, Get your specs on, girl. Listen: when I walk in the showers, heads turn.

Desmond, she says, it needs treating.

I say, Then give it a night on the town. What d’you reckon: limo, dinner at the Ritz, a box at the theatre and a suite in a Park Lane hotel?

It’s all swagger and desperation—but it’s funny swagger and desperation. Denial is certainly at work here, but it’s of an interesting variety: chosen, as opposed to reflexive. You can’t joke about something you don’t acknowledge in the first place; Ronnie’s brand of self-defense is more subtle (and, one could argue, more admirable) than the ordinary sort.

The problem is that many of Ronnie’s jokes aren’t this good. Here’s a sampling from his actual act:

…Oh yeah, that paper: New Pop Weekly. Now then, every week they print a list of the Top Sixty. Have you heard some of these?

Wanna Grapple with your Tackle, by Vicky Virago and the Vixens.

Want that Hunk in My Bunk, by Kathie Klutch and the Crampons.

You’re in my Flat, by Mick Manse and the Maisonettes.

On and on they go, these cryptic little puns, for eight more entries—three-quarters of a page out of seven pages total. Now compare this to the act of another comic, overheard in fragments by Ronnie when he is off-stage—a comic whom the story sets up as genuinely unfunny:

“No, she says, I don’t want to stroke your cat. I asked for a Marmite sandwich!”

Yes, Ronnie’s act makes more sense, but only a little more. For the piece to be completely effective Ronnie would have to be consistently, crudely funny—or he would at least have to be crudely funny when the author wanted him to be. The problem is one of control. It’s not that the voice gets away from Leyland, exactly; Ronnie never lapses from character. Rather, the words he actually says aren’t enough to carry the full weight of the piece, and so Leyland is forced to invoke other devices to bring his message home. The most distracting of these are what we might think of as stage directions, italicized bits of business which supply context, sometimes unnecessarily. Early on, they seem harmless enough:

Ronnie approaches the front of the stage, almost falling into the orchestra pit, and becomes conspiratorial.

There’s a minor problem with this—Ronnie’s voice might sink to a conspiratorial whisper, or his tone might turn conspiratorial, but for he himself to turn conspiratorial is jarring, as if we’ve become suddenly and inappropriately privy to his state of mind—but it doesn’t do much damage. By the end of the piece, however, the situation has grown more dire. Here is one of the last of these stage directions:

Ronnie continues to stand on the stage looking into the auditorium, waiting. The audience is attentive. People have gathered in the wings.

And another:

Silence has invaded the theatre and occupied everyone.

Something has shifted here—not Ronnie himself, but his story’s setting. The theatre has taken on the quality of a nightmare; the audience has come to resemble supernatural judges. Certainly, facing the prospect of death at the hand of one’s own brain is both absurd and menacing, but it still doesn’t make sense, given the rest of the piece, for the circumstances to suddenly become surreal. But Leyland needs to bring his story to a climax, and since Ronnie’s words alone won’t suffice, this is the method he falls back on. Indeed, by this point in the story, Ronnie is at a loss for words: he is having an episode of some sort, and his speech is comprised of disjointed snippets, memories and garbled fragments of other comics’ acts and appeals to the audience. It is undeniably moving, but it is also something of a cop-out. Since Ronnie’s brain is failing him at the story’s end, Leyland has the opportunity to stuff Ronnie’s speech full of things the comic, in his right mind, would never say—and he uses the opportunity in ways that ultimately diminish the piece. Ronnie, it seems, has never gotten over the death of his mother, and what surfaces here at the very end of his act appears to be a memory of her death as seen through the eyes of a young child.

It went quiet, my mum was still, and I couldn’t wake her. I shook her but she just lay there, warm. They said leave her, she needs rest now, but she never woke. And that’s God’s truth.

Now, this is certainly a heartbreaking bit of prose. The problem is that there has only been a single, fleeting mention of Ronnie’s mother up to this point, a mention so brief and devoid of detail that the reader has no sense of Ronnie’s emotional connection to her. The effect of this deathbed memory therefore ends up seeming rather contrived—it is as if the author did not quite trust the work he had already done and therefore felt he needed to play the "dead mother" card in order to drive home the point that Ronnie is scared, sad, and lonely.

This is a shame, since Ronnie’s fear, sadness, and solitude would have been manifest without bringing up his mother. After all, the spectacle of a man dying so publicly, and yet so terribly alone, is about as sad as you can get. Given the over-the-top nature of Ronnie’s voice, it might have been wiser to exercise restraint in constructing the piece’s actual events—it might have been wiser to trust us to find the pathos in the story for ourselves, rather than hanging it before our eyes in neon letters.

Still, there is great deal to admire in “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” not the least of which is Mr. Leyland’s psychological penetration—Ronnie Lonesome himself is a wonderful creation, simultaneously so self-deceiving and so very self-aware. It’s quite a balancing act Mr. Leyland attempts, and, if he does not fully carry it off, we still have a great time watching him try.

--Bill Bukovsan, Associate Editor

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