Sunday, December 14, 2008

Step right up, it's "Richmond in Ragtime"

The chapter is an underappreciated literary device. At least, I failed to appreciate chapters until I began to read a book without one; then I realized how humbly crucial they are for showing the forward trajectory of a narrative and clarifying the relative importance of events and characters.

I had been floundering through the fascinating, well-written, but chapterless "Richmond in Ragtime: Socialists, Suffragists, Sex and Murder," by Harry Kollatz, Jr., when I went to a reading by Mr. Kollatz-- a performance, to be accurate.

He read several vignettes from the book, at times to the accompaniment of the Happy Lucky Combo.(This is probably the riskiest thing an author can do: have live, unrehearsed musical back-up to his reading. But when it works, it's delightful, as this was. Note: I am related to the accordionist.) And Mr. Kollatz, also an actor, is an excellent reader.

As he described the attractions of the 1909 state fair (first airplane flight in Richmond, pink popcorn, "huchy-kuchy," distilled spirits, etc.) I began to understand that the book "Richmond in Ragtime" is itself a carnival, a lit-up, cacophonous, sweat-steeped scatterment of sideshows and flapping tent doors.

In this one!: a quartet of underage drinkers "offering to put down 15 cents and the promise of a dollar next weekend" to purchase gin rickies!
In that one!: a 3,000-year-old mummified Egyptian princess rescued from a blazing dormitory!
And here!: muckraking ex-Mennonite gadfly Adon Yoder, editor of that weekly scourge of City Hall, "The Idea"!
What have they to do with each other? Who knows?! Who cares?!! Lay your money down and snap the dice across the felt!

I know from peeking into later vignettes that "Richmond in Ragtime" does have recurring characters and a few threads of plot (not that the book claims to have one). I still wish Mr. Kollatz or his editors had formed chapters with his material. But whether or not there's a main attraction around the next dusty corner, it was helpful to think of book-as-carnival; somehow understanding the form of a thing inclines me to like the thing.

No comments:

Post a Comment