My Favorite Clause: Ruminations on Stuart Dybek’s Penis

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“Sauerkraut Soup” from Stuart Dybek’s 1986 debut collection Childhood and Other Neighborhoods begins with a narrator waxing philosophical on the cathartic nature of bodily purge. “Puking felt like crying,” he tells us. “At first I almost enjoyed it the way people do who say they had a good cry.”

Frank can’t eat without up-chucking. According to Frank’s doctor, nothing’s physically wrong with him. Frank’s friend Harry—a psych major—has his own diagnosis: lack of nerve. Harry arrives at Frank’s with antidote in the form of cheap Pisano wine. The duo drink up. They listen to “Moonlight Sonata,” and compose a letter to a coed Harry met at a parapsychology convention who enticingly told him, “Ectoplasym is the come of the dead.” Frank takes the role of epistolary editor. It is clear that Frank has an ear for language, but his edits go unheeded by Harry, who explains that chicks from Ohio crave melodrama. The letter describes listening to “Moonlight Sonata,” and imagining moonlight coming in through the window to caress said coed’s breasts. The letter ends with the line, “My dick is a moonbeam.”

At first glance, “My dick is a moonbeam” appears to be a throwaway line, a joke in the vein of, “Ectoplasm is the come of the dead,” i.e. hilarious, but unrelated to the story’s deeper meaning. At least, that’s what I thought upon first reading, roughly three years ago.

Then a strange thing happened. As time passed, and the particulars of Dybek’s debut collection faded or mingled with other works in my memory’s library, one phrase stuck in my mind, clear as a bell, repeatedly ringing as I went about my daily life: “My dick is a moonbeam.”

The phrase lingered—continues to linger—on the tip of my tongue. It punctuates my inner monologue like a ticking metronome. In moments of joy the words themselves are colorful and major-key. In sorrow, MDIAMB becomes a blue dirge. Sometimes at night, when the A/C murmurs like a kazoo on fire; when the bathroom pipes spout insufferable, bends-like bass; when my nocturnal cat squeaks in atonal counterpoint—I have a strong urge to open my window, and scream to the sun-burnt summer streets, “My dick is a moonbeam!”

Forget meaning for a moment; let’s look at the phrase metrically. Dybek grew up on the Southside of Chicago, and the above-ground El train’s chugging rhythm haunts his prose. MDIAMB: four, single-syllable words—pumping pistons—punctuated, finally, by two slippery syllables, soft in the center (the “oo” in moon, the “ea” in beam”), and book-ended by symmetrical consonants (the mirrored ‘m’ that marks the beginning and end of the word).  The phrase brings to mind two beats of a moving train emphasized by a double-pumped conductor’s whistle. Chug-a-Chug-a-(pause)-Woo!-Woo!

Like the whistle—whose second pump sounds different from the first due to the listener’s shifting proximity to the moving train—the word moonbeam creates the illusion of altered pitch. The way a mouth forms “oo” forces the sound from deeper in the body, where bass resides. Only a single soft consonant separates “Moon” from the sound a cow makes. Thus, when we see the word “moon”, we hear it (in our heads) in a low register. “Ea,” on the other hand, is mouthy, like a birdcall; it hovers in the middle range, certainly higher-pitched (again, only in our heads—written words don’t have pitch unto themselves) than “moon.”

So, we’ve established: the restless monotony of MDIA, plus the pitch-twisting, ecstatic MB, amounts to an hypnotic phrase. But does it mean anything? Certainly, it’s a clever joke; a conductor’s whistle in-and-of-itself, it culminates a string of already funny, romantically-flailing, moon-riffage, with an unexpected (even less romantic, thus funnier) addition: the letter-writer’s own penis as moon substitute. Textbook comedy, no argument.

But repeat MDIAMB on its own, in your head, say, fifty times. Think about the words independently of the paragraph, and instead, within the larger context of the story, or even the collection, or, perhaps, in the context of your own adolescence. Suddenly, something feels wrong. My dick is a moonbeam—a strange thing to say about your penis.

Direct metaphor is powerful: My [noun] is a [noun]. Unlike a simile (My dick is like a moonbeam), the two nouns are not compared against each other. Instead they are equated—Noun one, it is implied, can be directly substituted for noun two, and vice versa. It’s the transitive property. But there aren’t any adjectives (e.g. My dick is shiny like a moonbeam), to explain why the nouns are interchangeable. Instead, something we know to be untrue—that an object, instead of being itself, is another object entirely—is stated as indisputable fact. This is odd. How can a penis be a moonbeam if it is a penis? It can’t. What the sentence speaks to, then, is the letter author’s anxiety about his own penis—he sees it, not as a penis, but as a moonbeam.

Now we’re getting somewhere. The story, “Sauerkraut Soup” is about a young man with, what seems to be, a psychosomatic problem: his body rejects nourishment for no apparent reason. In response, Frank goes on a hunger strike to protest his own inner workings. While Frank’s mind and body duke it out on the issue of digestion, Frank is ensconced in a similar, external tug-of-war between the physical world (he works in an ice cream factory) and the cerebral one (he reads Dostoyevsky, and seems better-suited for intellectual life than grueling physical labor). If Frank’s letter-writing sensibility is any indicator (as well as the fact that Frank and Dybek are pretty similar, biographically), he may well be on his way to a career in letters. Unfortunately for Frank (and presumably Dybek circa age 20), his cultural background—working-class Polish—values the physical world over the mental one, and Frank has been culturally groomed towards factory work. Though Frank’s father—an immigrant dreamer with higher hopes for his son than himself—fantasizes on the possibility of Frank as a class-climber, this vision places Future Frank in the engineering field—essentially, a white-collar version of a blue collar job.

Though Frank himself has no interest in engineering, he does see ecstatic transcendence as a physical revelation, not a mental one. This is expressed in Frank/Dybek’s description of playing summertime softball: “Sometimes, in a tight game, with runners on, digging in at short, ready to break with the ball, a peace I’d never felt before would paralyze the diamond. For a moment of eternal stillness I felt as if I were cocked at the very heart of the Midwest.” It is an apt, if unexpected, metaphor coming from Frank. Instead of feeling physically at odds with the world (as he usually is), Frank is a pumping heart securely snuggled at the center of a giant, gentle body.

Which brings us back, in a sense, to my dick is a moonbeam. As a metaphor, MDIAMB is the opposite of Midwest/Heart/Body. Instead of physical harmony, we get extreme bodily alienation. “My dick,” Dybek seems to be saying, “is foreign to me.” It is, at once, incredibly grand and powerful (it steers the tides, sends shadow onto unlit alleyways), but also alien (the moon is in space), distant (some ### light-years away), and ill-defined (you can’t hold a moonbeam). The metaphor even extends to the words themselves. Think of the two nouns: dick and moonbeam. Dick, with its hard ‘K’ ending, feels solid, rooted in the physical world. Moonbeam, with it’s squishy “oo,” squeaky “ea” and lack of hard consonants, even sounds immaterial.

It is a sad clause, MDIAMB, perhaps heartbreaking. Frank, as a character, is paralyzed, stuck between adolescence and adulthood. Though he revels in physical delights (softball—in itself a regressive, pre-pubescent pleasure), his body is also an enemy (hence the vomiting). And though Harry has a long-distance love, Frank himself shows no sign of age-appropriate sexual obsession. How could he when his dick is a moonbeam? In five words Dybek has masterfully shrunk his story down to a single, universal truth.

***

I’m sitting in a bar as I write this, thinking of my own adolescence, which, like Frank’s, involved a weak stomach, a hunger for books, and very few females. I’m remembering reading the dirty bits in Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, and feeling, for the first time, elated at the erotic possibilities of language. Like Alexander Portnoy, I spent numerous hours examining my own moonbeam as if it were a scientific specimen, an odd, unusual growth, capable of causing extreme physical pleasure, but also, more often than not, equally extreme physical frustration (due to lack of female interest in said moonbeam.) My body, like Frank’s, expressed its anxiety and physical frustration gastronomically.

“What are you working on?” my barkeep, the master mix-ologist Damon asks.  The bar—a pseudo speakeasy modeled after a German meat and beer establishment circa 1890—is endearingly retro, and Damon is dressed for the part, wearing a vintage gray seersucker three-piece suit and old-timey glasses.

I give Damon the gist of this essay.

“But is all that explanation really necessary?” he asks.  “It seems like the kind of thing where you either get it or you don’t,” he says.

In the tradition of bartenders past, Damon is wise, and worth hearing out.  Perhaps, I consider, MDIAMB’s ultimate beauty lies in it’s un-showy simplicity. Frank himself has no understanding of the underlying depth (or literary aptitude) of his own joke/come-on. Dybek provides no expository explanation; he allows space for the reader’s own interpretations. Dybek, I’m guessing, simply understood that he’d hit on a perfect phrase, a perfect ending to his paragraph, and, perhaps, an utterly perfect metaphor.

“It’s almost tattoo-worthy,” Damon says.

***

Illustrations by André da Loba.


Adam Wilson is the author of two books, Flatscreen: A Novel, and What's Important Is Feeling: Stories. A recipient of The Paris Review's Terry Southern Prize for Humor, he was recently named to Brooklyn Magazine's list of 50 Funniest People In Brooklyn. More from this author →