It kills me to write this. A precious clove of garlic saved from the two heads I’d purchased from Stanley Crawford at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market in September went uneaten, slowly shriveling, stranded atop a tin of red chile powder in my kitchen in New York. I had planned to plant this clove in autumn, put it in a pot on the fire escape, let winter, spring, summer do their thing, and see what I’d dig up come next fall. But we didn’t have any soil. Later we had soil but no pot. Then it was November. If it wasn’t already too late, it soon would be. And a million other things happened. And then it was late winter. When at last I’d worked up the nerve to touch the clove, life had left it. Mold had sprouted under its sloughing sheaths.
“Things are seeds,” says Bill Starr, the slowly expiring narrator of Seed. “I wish to plant mine into the future, deliberately, though I am not yet clear as to the eventual intended result, if there can be one, intended, within the vast fields of contingency that lie out there, ahead.” Bill’s seeds are his things: an imitation Rolex, photo albums, statuettes, a 1930’s Pierce-Arrow. By ‘future’ Bill means the members of his extended, scarcely remembered family, who have been lured out to Bill’s estate under the pretense of being bequeathed something of value. They’ll be disappointed, in most cases, to leave no less enriched, and often substantially burdened by Bill’s bequests:
As I close the door behind them, all joints functioning nicely, and after watching them walk to their car, I think they look a little older than when they arrived, slightly hunched over, walk a touch unsteady, which makes me feel a little younger.
I can’t help but hear Bill cackling as he thinks this, laughing as much at me as at his relatives, another failed heir, fumbling Crawford’s seeds, words, and garlic cloves through fields of contingency.
For those who have not visited his stall at the farmers market or been transformed by reading Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine or Travel Notes or Mayordomo, and who thus do not yet know who he is: Stanley Crawford is the author of soaring and scarring fiction, a farmer and purveyor of phantasmagorically pungent bulbs, and an essayist whose poetic and philosophical insights into our American landscapes and dreamscapes reverberate with Emerson and Thoreau. Now, in his 78th year, Crawford bequeaths two formidable, wildly different, yet unexpectedly kindred works, Seed and The Canyon.
In The Canyon, Scotty, the narrator, reminisces and reflects on painfully pubescent summers spent at his family’s cabin in Colorado. Like Scotty’s enigmatic erections, the plot ebbs and flows according to its own mysterious inclinations. It meanders, grows full, empties just as suddenly, and is most commonly driven by the visits, both real and imagined, of Rosalind, whose parents are friends with Scotty’s, and who would rather read classics than nourish—or more likely dispel—Scotty’s fantasies by actually speaking to him. Plot is really secondary, however, to the lucid and wholesale renderings of Scotty’s murkiest sensations and sentiments, as when, in the wake of Rosalind’s departure, Scotty fetishizes the view from below of his top bunk, where she’d spent most of the preceding visit reading:
…her features blurred and faded and then coalesced into the sagging bulge of gray matter I had contemplated from the lower bunk during our moments of greatest intimacy. I went to sleep, awoke, daydreamed with the bulge hanging over me, a distended fruit clad in striped gray mattress ticking, white threads almost imperceptibly jiggling: my Rosalind.
Scotty’s recollections of his youth have grown stranger and more mysterious with time. They seem to have become impregnated by the absence of all that had originally animated them, as the attentive and measured adult carefully excavates experiences that overwhelmed the child. The Canyon bridges youth and maturity, achieving a perspective that transcends both. Scotty says, “I was far from knowing that older people often yearn for just what the young are longing to escape from.” And, after he suffers a bout of almost Sartrean nausea while venturing into a profoundly unpeopled wilderness:
I did not yet have the sense to know that Rosalind’s ability to maintain her self-created shell depended on the larger embrace of others, the routines, the domestic noises and smells around her, even of those she thought she was trying to avoid.
If The Canyon is lucid and precise, Seed is lush, indulgent, and slyly withholding, the sort of writing rife with crannies to get lost in, that begs to be spoken: “Gutters gurgling, dripping, rivulets of water sluicing downhill toward the street.” Bill Starr is undoubtedly a kindred spirit of Mrs. Unguentine or the narrator of Travel Notes, but older, with a firmer conscience, and less conviction in his powers of observation, or at least in his ability to communicate these observations to others. In fact, a great deal of the novel’s humor is derived from the disparity between what Bill seems to be putting down and what his interlocutors seem to be picking up:
…when someone my age asks someone your age [about themselves], what we really want to do is to whip open the so-long closed curtains and know, well, how’s the old sex life going, what are your favorite positions, male or female, yes. Luxuriate in the smooth flesh and silken hairs and such. I suppose I’m shocking you. Let’s snap closed the curtain. I’m fairly certain I say none of this, fairly, but not absolutely.
Like Scotty’s world, Bill’s is illuminated by an inexhaustible erotic imagination. But whereas, in The Canyon, confusing and overabundant sensations of the body overwhelm a young mind, Seed’s eroticism is melancholic. Bill’s worn-out body can only fail to register what his expansive mind dreams up. Bill seems to have led quite an unrestrained existence, reveling freely, despite a long and loving marriage, in sex with both sexes:
The penetration part I could never go for. Fiddling around with cocks and balls, fine. Once is philosophy, twice is sodomy. Technically I’m still a philosopher.
Though in the next sentence Bill admits to actually not being a philosopher in this sense, he is undoubtedly one in the more traditional sense. Bill’s philosophy is the true treasure of his estate, and his generosity in this realm is unmatched, whether he’s bestowing memories or scathing critiques of industrial consumerism. Regardless the content, what Bill bequeaths is the desire, the urge—the urgency—to experience and embrace all we can while we can:
Starts-with-S, there is also the slippery question of time, of how all these flimsy present moments funnel away into the past and into a rich but so untouchable tapestry, this present which lurches from overflowingly incomprehensible to searing emptiness, inevitably vanishing, sometimes too fast, sometimes not fast enough, but never at exactly the right pace, whatever that is. Stu, the name is Stu. So whatever you do or don’t do, Stu. But then I lose the thought.
This losing of the thought is consistent with both the delivery of Bill’s insights and the larger affirmation central to those insights. However carefully Bill places his bequests—just as carefully as Crawford crafts his sentences—he doubts these heirs of his will truly receive what he gives. There is no certainty we readers will take in all of Crawford’s gifts, plant all of his garlic cloves. Nothing can be certain in these vast fields of contingency. Still, as Bill phrases it, there is hope:
If the goal of life is to grasp as much life as is possible in the face of the impossibility of knowing eternity, then should we not tuck failure more confidently under the belt too as part of the full roundness of experience?
So perhaps I can take some consolation in my rotted clove. Yes, I’ve lost something precious. I may never grow my own garlic, but this chance and this failure are gifts as good as any other, as pungent as Crawford’s garlic.