- Of Balloons in John Wideman’s Fiction
Reading John Wideman’s books is as dangerous as letting a balloon explode in your face when you are least aware of it. As a matter of fact, so many balloons explode in his books that, as readers, we must beware the blasts that unsettle us every now and then. I would like to go through a number of passages in which balloons appear and try to see what it is all about. The excerpts are taken from Sent for You Yesterday, Reuben, Philadelphia Fire, The Cattle Killing, and some short stories. The balloon images that can be found in these works generally express the vulnerability of the human condition very vividly. In Sent for You Yesterday, a balloon is the metaphor for one character duplicating himself and viewing himself in two parts when he is high on drugs:
He could see one part of Brother Tate anchored to the busted sidewalk of Finance Street but he could also see the sun-dimpled bubble of his bald head floating miles up in the sky, so high the string attaching it to his feet disappeared before it reached the pale balloon. Brother Tate wondered what it would feel like to cut the string, to snip the cord and watch the balloon jet away. Would the sun pop it, would the air rush out and the balloon zigzag, crazy as a chicken with its head cut off, across the sky? Would he be able to hear it sputter and hiss and squeal? Would it finally fall back to earth, land somewhere on Finance Street and some little kid pick it out of the gutter and stretch it and poke it and maybe put his mouth on the dirty rubber and blow it up again?(172)
Although the character Brother Tate is the focalizer, his name is used as an external reference. The sentence goes: “He could see one part of Brother Tate . . .”; instead of using the expected reflexive: “Brother Tate could see one part of himself. . . .” This emphasizes the dissociation between the character and the image he has of himself as a balloon. What begins as a mild case of schizophrenia, in which the balloon-like head is separated from the rest of the body while the character gets an overview of himself, ends up as a playful meditation on the versatility of life and chance. Beware, beware, seems to say the balloon, I am not just an odd metaphor in John Wideman’s fiction, but a warning that something is at stake. Once this balloon metaphor has been used, it comes up again as a reference in the book, about a hundred pages further along, as “Brother” urinates on the sidewalk: [End Page 645]
Brother remembers the time on the corner of Finance and Dunfermline when he felt like a balloon, when he held the string in his hand and a balloon with his funny face bobbed closer and closer to the sun. He wondered if it would pop. Wondered as he made a little river along the curb why the air didn’t rush out when the water rushed out. You pulled the plug and the water drained, and why didn’t the air leak out too?(178)
Here the memory of a balloon gets entangled with the situation of the character who is urinating, and the phrase “he held the string in his hand” takes on a humorous double meaning. In the sentence “He wondered if it would pop,” the pronoun “it” is ambiguous, referring to the balloon but also to the body of the man, as the next sentence makes clear when Brother is wondering “why the air didn’t rush out when the water rushed out.”
A metamorphosis takes place gradually, as the abstract challenge to the laws of physics takes on a reality of its own. Liquid and air follow the same outward movement so that a man urinating and a balloon’s deflation participate in the same annihilation, the same shrinking and shriveling into nonentity for either the balloon or the man:
He feels his body going limp. All the air hissing away...