- Ecstasies in Relief
Crushed beneath the giant taxidermied corpse of a grizzly bear, Vada Prickett, the protagonist of Michael Griffith's third book, Trophy, is twenty minutes from dead. As the novel opens, Vada is "dying beneath three hundred pounds of grizzly pelt and weighted urethane on the trophy-room floor of his lifelong friend and rival, Wyatt, on the eve of Wyatt's marriage to the woman Vada loves, Darla." Add to these lines the novel's epilogue, a letter to the editor of the Lexington Gazette from Vada's friend Trish Alston in response to his obituary, and you have a tidy summary of the novel's narrative present. Vada is dying. Then Vada is dead. As such, the death does little to provide the tension normally found in the question of whether a character will die. We already know that he will. Vada's death functions, then, as a clock. It counts us down, not always in order, sometimes loudly, often less so, toward the inevitable. Unobstructed by if and when, Vada's death serves as a vehicle for his examined life, which is, in my opinion, the novel's central concern.
But memory, dear timekeeper, is a pouchy, convoluted thing, like those valises you sometimes see salarymen toting on trains. Or it's a fruitcake, dense and indestructible, studded with green cherry hemispheres and shreds of nutmeat and dried-coconut confetti. Or it's an infinite intestine that absorbs what it will and then doubles back on itself to close its loop—though the loop isn't closed in the sense that you can't still always add more, there's a tube leading in, which is what makes it infinite, it's just closed in the sense that nothing is lost or voided, only absorbed or passed around the circuit again and again—an ever-lengthening turd-train of memories one can't leach any good out of.
As strange as these metaphors are (and the narrator admits as much later), they are accurate. Memory is "dense and indestructible." It is an infinite and infinitely messy circuit that Vada passes around and through. So it is fitting that Griffith has more or less abandoned linear storytelling and conventional structure. Time is layered, it is a filament stretched lightly across the events, such as they are, of Vada's life. From bear crushing to death, no more than twenty minutes pass, and these twenty minutes represent the peaks on the plot's trajectory. In its valleys, we find not only the events that lead directly up to Vada's death (Griffith hasn't entirely abandoned traditional narrative arc) but also the parts of Vada's life that inform us of the tragedy of its loss. Vada's parents Vic and Celeste, for instance, have been killed in an accident involving a garbage truck, and Vada is simultaneously collecting objects (trophies!) that keep his memory of them present and selling off their belongings from their "household for cash." So while we page inexorably toward what we know will be the novel's final scene, Vada's past serves as a sub-current of narrative pressure, both digressing away from Vada's death and rushing us undeniably toward it.
That Trophy is a great comic novel is apparent right away. But placing it firmly in one tradition or another is a difficult task. Its humor is partly found in the way Griffith masterfully blends the high and low. Here we find equal parts punning and word jokes, slapstick, and the scatological, just to name a few. About a third of the way in, the question of the readers' awareness of Vada's death being used as a framing device is addressed. Suspense has been removed, or at least manipulated, the narrator admits, because the reader has "the edge on Vada—you can tell by the dwindling thickness at your right hand how much time is still allotted him." Not only is this funny because we see a writer playfully working within a postmodern trope, but because Vada "humbly hopes there...