Leverett T. Smith, Jr.
"That River of Talk": Michael Rumaker's Pagan Days
by Michael Rumaker, 1999
Circumstantial Productions, $20
Michael Rumaker spent much of the decade of the 1980s composing a lengthy first-person narrative, Pagan Days, finally published in 1999. The novel perhaps can be read in the traditions of literature about children instituted by Mark Twain in Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and by Louisa May Alcott in Little Women. Both Twain and Alcott compose critiques of nineteenth-century America through their depictions of the nature of childhood. Twain, in addition, in Huckleberry Finn, let Huck narrate his own story. Rumaker's Pagan Days accomplishes the same things for the late twentieth century. The narrator and protagonist of Pagan Days, Mickey Lithwack, is a direct descendent of Tom Sawyer, Jo March, and Huck Finn.
Pagan Days is essentially about Mickey's childhood, about what it felt like being small and ignored, about being curious, being "peculiar," gradually discovering in himself a gay sexuality, and about telling stories about "things there is no use telling older people." Among the adults, his mother has by far the greatest influence over him, though his third grade teacher, Miss Prouty, is also important. His father is the most complex and important of his adult male influences, but others – including a nameless naked man, the crippled society reporter Charley, and the family priest Father Mack – are also important. Among his peers two boys – Earl Snarp Jr. and Timothy Burnside – have a great influence over him. Finally, though, it is what he finds in himself – a curiosity about humanity, a love of talk, a peculiar sense of his gender – that is most important. "That kid just inhabited me," Rumaker wrote in an e-mail, "possessed me, a kind of inexpressible magic that took over mind, spirit, most importantly, tongue, kept it wagging, danced on it, all the way through, all the way down through my fingers dancing with the pen, my fingers dancing on the keyboard." In the same e-mail he referred to the book as "that river of talk that became Pagan Days."
For a book centrally concerned with the psyche of its narrator, Pagan Days is well anchored in social and economic reality. The scene is the Great Depression, the United States in the 1930s. Early in the book, Mickey wonders to his mother about a sign his father has placed in the window: "when I ast her what it said she said, 'Vote for Roosevelt,' saying it like there was a rose in his name" (Pagan Days, 29-30). By the book's end, Mickey's father, jobless throughout the thirties, is back at work because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States' subsequent entry into World War II. When Mickey's mother's friend Mrs. Beezley exclaims about Roosevelt's characterization of the attack as "a day of infamy," Mickey notices that the pronunciation, and perhaps attitude of approval of the President, hasn't changed: "she said the President's name like it had a rose in it" (603). With Mickey's father's return to work, the Depression ends for the Lithwacks. As Mickey says, "the lights were on again in our house" (620). The family's poverty during the Depression is a major subject of the novel.
In fact it gives the novel its shape. Mickey's father Stosh loses his job in a Philadelphia factory, the family moves to the country and survives on relief until, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he gets a job at a New Jersey shipyard as the United States enters World War II. Poverty is always a problem for the Lithwacks, a large Catholic family, whether the father works or not. There are too many mouths to feed and too little food. In the country they catch frogs and get food from the government in return for working on relief: "burlap bags of rotting potatoes," and "butter that was rancid more often than not and bags of sugar hard as cement and sometimes full of ants and sacks of flour and corn meal sometimes so wormy my father had to bury them." And then there were the canned grapefruit slices "that nobody liked much, they had such a bitter taste, but that we et anyway, if you heaped sugar on it it didn't taste half bad" (277). In addition, the family gets on without electricity for most of its stay in the country.
The spiritual cost of poverty is, if possible, worse than the material cost. For Mickey's father Stosh constantly job-hunting, "most days he couldn't find anything and would come back home with a look of shame and resentment in his eyes" (240). Mickey can see the worry in his mother's eyes and lies in bed "worrying what was going to happen to us all" (244). Poverty exacerbates Mickey's parents' relationship so that his father first accuses his mother of having an affair and then himself leaves home. Mickey's own experience in school underlines the problems of people living in poverty. His teacher promotes "a well-balanced breakfast" and quizzes the students each morning about whether they've had one or not. Mickey learns to lie about his own breakfast and as a consequence "was able to hold my head up when the others, along with the teacher, turned and smiled at me like they were giving me some kind of reward for having learned my first school lesson in lying" (378).
The advent of the Second World War provides a happy ending for the family. When Germany invades Poland, their neighbor Mrs. Beezley rushes over shouting "It means war! . . . It means yer Stosh'll finally be gittin a job at the yard!" (534-535). And the book's final scene has the Beezleys and the Lithwacks celebrating Stosh's new employment. Mickey is awake and listening upstairs: "if it was a war, I didn't care, if it was a war, let it be, if it meant my father got a job at last, . . . If it was a war, then I was glad . . . for having the lights on again . . . . They were saying on the radio the lights were going out all over the world but I didn't care, even though I knew it was a sin not to care, the lights were on again in our house and they'd been off so long I was glad they were on again even if they were going off all over the world" (620). Mickey himself feels a part of his life ending and another beginning: "Nights, the whole house had a quiet kind of humming going on that made me feel so sleepy and quiet inside, like something'd come to a stop, finally. It was like I was getting over something, a fever, or like after awhile when I had my tonsils out and my throat finally didn't feel so raw any more" (610).
Much of the book is Mickey's description of life within the Lithwack family. What he sees and relates amounts to an extraordinarily detailed portrait of an American family in the 1930s. Mickey's is a large, Catholic family. He is the fourth of what will be a family of seven children by the end of the book. We see the good possibilities of family life in a scene in which the family is "pulling mop strings" together to make a little money. Mickey's long arms enable him to participate fully in this activity, and while he works he sees the possibilities of his family as a whole. It is the only time in the book that his parents sing together. "Listening, as the two of them was singing away and pulling at the mop strings, for the first time since I knew I was alive I had a feeling of us all being together, even more'n when we set around the parlor listening to the radio, all our hands and arms was pulling together to the beat in the song my mother and father was singing as we all pulled away, all of us busy and listening like we was all the same heartbeat under the golden light of the lamp that made me feel so quiet and happy and safe inside" (93).
Mickey's mother and father don't sing together much, but unlike Huck Finn who's missing his mother, Tom Sawyer who's missing both parents but especially his father, and Jo Alcott, who's missing her father, Mickey has both parents, and both are central to his life. His mother Nor is an especially important influence. He "talked all the time around her" (21). She encourages Mickey, and around her he sings and dances. With her he listens on the radio to soap operas, while his father and brothers catch the ball games. She also introduces him to the movies, and all these stories provide him with material for his own stories, which he tells to his younger siblings. Various pressures (poverty, the Catholic Church's stance on birth control) drive her and her husband apart during the course of Mickey's youth, but she is the heroic figure in the family, giving her son room to grow and holding the family together in the face of her husband's anger and economic and sexual frustration. Late in the book, Mickey finds the two of them in the same room. "My mother sat bundled up in the old coat Aunt Bridget gave her, crocheting another one of her doilies for the arms and backs of the parlor chairs . . . – 'Pick that up,' you could hear her say any number of times in a day or evening, like to her keeping the doilies in place would somehow keep everything else in place"(589).
No storyteller herself, Mickey's mother introduces him to the stories on the radio and in the movies. Mickey meets another storyteller in the classroom. This is his third grade teacher, Miss Prouty, who also has an unusual prominence in the book. Mickey describes her as "tall as a weed with a pair of little eyeglasses clipped to her nose she said was called pinch-nay that was French meant pinch-your-nose, which it looked like they did, it looked like it sure hurt to wear them" (552). Her stories fascinate the class: "hearing . . . her stories was almost as good as being at the movies or listening to our old Scott radio when the juice used to be on. Not only me but everybody in the classroom would be leaning over our desks, our mouths hanging open, not a sound in the room but Miss Prouty talking, her voice running on in that low, whispery way of hers, her voice running like a brushfire through the room, making it the most exciting part of the day" (554). Mickey is clearly learning something essential about storytelling from Miss Prouty, as well as from the movies and the radio programs he loves.
Mickey is perplexed by the conventional version of masculinity that rules the family. Mickey likes to sing and dance, he is interested in dolls, he prefers the company of his mother. At one point he says "if you were a boy you were to behave one way and if you were a girl you was to behave another, and I never got the hang of which way was which, if I could only get the hang of it I knew everything'd be all right, but I just couldn't seem to get the hang of it no matter how hard I tried" (306). He gets lots of disapproval from his older brothers, who he sees, as he dances in the street with neighbor Colleen Brown "teasing and holding their noses" (71). On another occasion he is surprised to learn from his cousin that "being a girl was a bad thing" (87). At Christmas he receives a toy truck, his sister a doll. He is conscious of wanting the doll and knowing he was supposed to want the truck. "Even though I would've rather been playing with the Shirley Temple, I got down on my hands and knees and making brrr-rummm noises like I was a motor, pushed my truck from one end of the house to the other, pretending I was making oil deliveries" (122). He is a mystery to his father Stosh, after whom he has been named. Having opened a picture of Shirley Temple for which Mickey sent, Stosh stares at Mickey. "He was looking at me now the way he first looked at the envelope, like I was something that baffled him, he was looking like he would put all that in the back of his mind and save it up for a time when he would come after me when I wasn't expecting it" (581). Talkative around his mother, Mickey "learnt not to talk around" his father (21). While his mother crochets doilies, "my father buried his face behind the Bulletin like the paper was a wall shutting us out" (589).
While Mickey loves his mother, his attitude toward his father is more complicated, as he both fears and loves him. His mother is "a dark warm blanket" to the infant Mickey, but his father: "cold he smellt, and sweet" (11, 12). But there's often fire in his eyes, especially when he's been drinking, "his eyes as bright as the Mahoney house burning" (564). "But there was another fire, not in the stove or only in my head at night, it was in my father's eyes. It flared up higher and higher the more Dixie Belle gin he drank with Mr. Beezley" (566).
An alcoholic, ashamed and angry because of his inability to get a job, perplexed by his peculiar son Mickey, frustrated in his sexual relations with his wife, Stosh is primarily a source of danger to all those around him, but he has another, less violent, side. Mickey sees him, for instance, meticulously placing the tinsel of the family Christmas tree "making it all even and exact, like he done everything else" (120). Early in the book he borrows his boss's car and takes his family for a ride. Mickey observes "I could see just driving it made him all grins like I never seen him grin so much excepting when he was in a good mood when he had a few" (80). Here he perhaps shares the perspective of the narrator of Robert Creeley's poem "I Know a Man," itself a portrait of adult male perplexity in the 1950s, in which "the darkness sur-/rounds us, what/can we do against it, or else, shall we &/why not, buy a goddam big car,/drive. . . ."
Mickey also shows us Stosh sober and happy. The family's move from Philadelphia to Lenape makes him happy. "And even though he ain't found a job yet and there wasn't much to eat . . . there was something in his face when he looked around as if none of that mattered at all. You could see he liked being here" (187). "In spite of everything, " Mickey continues, "he seemed quieter just being where he was and I felt less jumpy around him now he took the pledge" (188). Finally, Stosh is eager to find work, hopeful that his friend Sam Beezley can get him a job at the shipyard where he works. "He'd always sit on the top step of our porch with my father and tell him about his day's work at the yard. My father'd lean forward, his hands gripped between his knees, his lips half open like he was expecting something good, his face so bright and eager as he listened . . ." (203).
Stosh is central to two episodes that together comprise the heart of Mickey's experience. Both also involve Mickey and his mother. The first occurs on the evening after Mickey's parents' anger, and Stosh's drunkenness, have precipitated physical violence, stopped by Mickey's older brother Buster. Mickey on that occasion regards his father cooling off in the kitchen. "What I really wanted to do was go to him and push back his hair, what I really wanted to do was put my hand on his shoulder like he did on mine at my first holy communion, he looked so beat down and blue" (472). Mickey can't do this, but that he wants to connects him with his father, and this connection is deepened in the next episode.
Stosh, hung over and shaking, in lighting a cigarette accidentally sets fire to a whole book of matches and badly burns his hand. His wife Nor angrily ignores this, and none of the children dare respond. He finally treats himself. Mickey's response establishes his relation to both his parents: "I turned away too, I couldn't bear seeing his eyes, like the pain in them was all mixed up now with the look of his being cheated all over again as everyone of us ignored him, the very same look he had as when Buster'd jumped in between my mother and him the night before on the stairs. As for me, like I had last night when he came and sat in the kitchen after he'd gone after her, I had another strong feeling I wanted to go to him, not knowing what I'd do if I did. But I felt like I was froze to my seat just like I was last night, only this time it was like I was torn in two between my knowing the pain he caused her because of his drinking, while feeling at the same time just as if the pain in his hand was in my hand too, pain that seemed, from his eyes, as burning as his other look of feeling cheated and being made to feel like a stranger amongst all of us right at that very moment" (477-478). Here he is learning from his father what it means to be a male, but his allegiance to his mother is stronger. He wants to help his father but realizes "if I did I would be turning against her the way he knew she was turned against him" (478).
In the second episode, Stosh's violence is directed at Mickey himself. Mickey sets his father off with his compulsive talking. "I was so filled at times with a high excitement I didn't understand, or that my father or my brothers didn't understand either, and that they didn't like and had no patience for, that seemed to get on his nerves when he was coming off of a drunk and didn't have any money for any more booze" (567). Mickey can't stop talking, though he knows if he doesn't, his father will beat him. "It was like I had a part to play, the same way I felt ever after that when he'd come after me, like I had a part to play and there wasn't any way out of it, I had to play it, like we all had a part in it" (568). Stosh beats Mickey with his belt, and while Mickey "danced around him," he hopes his mother will intervene. "But she'd already lowered her head again, bent over her crocheting like she didn't want to see" (570). When his mother does say something, she quickly "fell into a silence . . . as if she knew, . . . if he was beating me or any one of us, he wouldn't bother her" (570-571). The beating over, Mickey thinks "it was like something was cleared away, like the air was after a bad storm, it was clear and calm and quiet" (572). Mickey eventually concludes that by taking the beating "I somehow did her a favor without my knowing it" (572).
Mickey's description of his father during the beating is instructive, particularly about the marriage of sex and violence in the psyche of the American male of that time. "But the more I tried to get out of his way, the more furious he got, so that he walloped me all the harder, his face red as Miss Prouty's fires, as red as the fires of Father Mack's hell, his hair all hanging in his face when he bent to me, then sticking up like a rooster's comb when he reared back and raised his arm up again, his breath coming fast the way I sometimes heard it in the night in the dark of their bedroom, the way mine did and the way Earl Jr.'s did, playing Slaves and Masters in the woods" (570). Here the violence of the beating is associated with both the sex life of Mickey's parents and with Mickey's play with Earl Snarp Jr. This picture of Stosh "his hair all hanging in his face" evokes Huck Finn's Pap and the violence of his alcoholism, but Twain's characters operate outside the dynamic of the family and without sexual meaning, while Rumaker's illuminate both.
Outside the family, other adult males present different versions of maleness for Mickey. One of the adults who offers an alternative to the maleness of Mickey's father and brothers is Charley, the crippled society reporter of the local paper. In fact Mickey immediately associates him with his father "with a sharp nose and face like my father, his hair slicked back the same as him." Charley is deformed: "The lame leg he dragged along after him in the sand gave him a stooped, stumbly kind of walk making the crooked arm he held up in front of him look just like a broke wing. He looked like the stork brung babies I seen in the comic strips" (307-308). Charley wants to help the boys "with their problems." He addresses Mickey, and "at first I didn't think he was talking to me, grownups didn't always talk to me, even a grownup that's cripple, when you are so little and close to the ground it's like big people don't see you and you don't count" (311). All through this encounter with Charley, Mickey's oldest brother is calling to him to come swimming. "Charley's eyes were still watching me. They had a look in them said, Don't pay him any attention. There was something damp and gray in his eyes, like something buried and hid, something you might see back in the swamp or like the strange things we had no names for we'd sometimes find under rocks here at the beach" (311) This alternative to Stosh's maleness seems menacing.
Father Mack, the family's Catholic priest in Lenape, provides a second alternative. He is initially a figure of satire. Mickey's first impression underlines the church's riches as opposed to the family's poverty. "A brand new car drove up in front of the house in a big cloud of yellow dust . . . . A big man with a white collar and black suit like Father Gallagher's got out and started up the path to the porch. He had a round belly and was wearing a hat so light it was the color of the cream at the top of the milk bottle. He gave us a big smile as he came up the steps, beaming at us through his glasses that didn't have no rims, and spreading his arms out, his red face sweating even though it wasn't all that warm yet. I held my breath, seeing the woreout steps bend under him" (245). Like his church, Father Mack is large and unhealthy, a danger to the family's structure.
Father Mack is red in the face on other occasions. He is jealous of the bell tower on the nearby Protestant church that drowns out his sermon. "Father Mack stopped dead in the middle of what he was saying and threw a dirty look out the windows in the direction of the bell before he started talking again in an even louder voice, his face getting red as the bricks in the red brick church the louder he had to talk like if he got any redder his glasses would steam up . . . . his eyes looked like two roosters fighting each other in the Beezley's chicken run, so that everytime when he said 'Jesus Christ' and the whole church bowed their heads, it sounded like he was cursing" (259). Father Mack is insistent on children putting pennies in the collection plate and blames them for the absence of a church bell. He also counsels Mickey's parents not to use prophylactics and refuses his mother communion when they continue to do so. His mother's sisters come to her rescue, and Mickey reflects that "maybe what her sisters was telling her to do wasn't right either, being a trick, but the way they said it sounded like they cared about her in a different way from Father Mack when he said what he said to her, despite he called her my child and called her mother and put his hand on her head and gave her his blessing" (500). Here it's clear that Father Mack cares little for the lives of his parishioners.
Mickey's brother Frank abruptly quits being an altar boy, and Mickey "wouldn't know why it was maybe he quit until I got to be an altar boy myself after I made my first holy communion and Father Mack got me in a corner and stared into my eyes" (275). When Mickey talks in the confessional about the Slaves and Masters play he engages in with Earl Snarp Jr., Father Mack is unusually interested. "He seemed so shoved up against me, I felt my whole body straining backwards on the kneeling step, he seemed so dark and big I couldn't hardly breathe" (456). In a later scene in the sacristy in which Father Mack and Mickey are alone removing their vestments after mass, Father Mack first smiles at Mickey and then moves to stand "right over" him. He inches "in closer, smiling. 'What lovely eyes you have,' he said, his voice as soft as the watered silk of the vestment he just slipped out of. . . . I could feel his belly pressing against me, feel the buttons of his black cassock pressing against my chest. I heard in my head Mrs. Gottlieb [how that name resonates!] saying near the same thing that first Sunday after mass, and heard again Frank and Buster sneering about it afterwards, and heard Father Mack now say it one more time, his voice coming raspy and quick just like it sounded through the screen in the confessional box when I confessed I danced bare in the woods with Earl Jr. – I thought again it must be bad to have them eyes" (524). Father Mack backs away and leaves, angrily.
This is developed further as Mickey sums up in his mind what has happened to him. "I began to know something I didn't know before, something with no name, something like that day on the beach when Charley showed up asking us did we have any problems, something that's so deep and dark it didn't have no name yet. And I knew something else too, I knew why Frank and Buster wasn't altar boys any more, something else I didn't have no words for but understood in that deep, dark place, and would keep there, deep and quiet forever" (525). Here Mickey is beginning to understand his own gay sexuality, that "something that didn't have no name yet." But, like his experience with Charley, Mickey's experience of it is not a positive one here.
Another adult male never attains a name. As Mickey, his father, and his siblings approach the river to go swimming, they walk by a picnicking couple who are largely undressed, the man completely naked. Mickey describes him: "a big-eared man with thick lips and a belly fatter'n Ronnie's father even, and a big round head that was almost all bald. The thing that took my breath away was he didn't have any clothes on." The woman "was sitting beside a picnic basket on a rumpled tablecloth . . . . She was just putting on the top of a swimming suit and I was surprised at how big and purple her nipples was, the first time I ever saw them on a lady. But it was the man I spotted first, seeing dangling between his legs what looked at first like a slippery red snake in a tangle of dark weeds" (287). This image stays with Mickey. He comments that "I dreamt of the naked man for a couple nights running but I didn't dream of the naked lady, she wasn't never in the dream somehow" (295). Here is another indication, though Mickey himself doesn't understand it yet, of his emerging gay sexuality.
These versions of adult male sexuality are juxtaposed with the sexuality of childhood, which Mickey experiences through his peers. While they live on Mifflin Street in Philadelphia, Mickey embarrasses his parents by singing and dancing in public with Colleen Brown (70-72). Another neighbor, Henry, is associated with forbidden stuff of another kind. He asks to see Mickey's hiney and likes to play with matches, "his eyes as bright as the flames in his hand" (78). Ronny Mahoney, Mickey's next-door neighbor and first friend in Lenape, serves mainly as an anti-guide. His relationship with his mother is adversarial and his church relationship ostentatious. In one memorable scene, Mickey and Ronny dress up in Ronny's mother's clothes and parade past their houses. Mickey is embarrassed again.
Mickey's neighbor on the other side of his house is a young man a year older than Mickey with the Dickensian name Earl Snarp Jr. Earl has a terrible reputation, yet he provides Mickey with important guidance. Outside of Mickey and his parents, he is the most important character in the book; he relates to Mickey as Huck Finn relates to Tom Sawyer in Tom Sawyer. The reader first meets him in Mickey's early days in Lenape. As Mickey passes the Snarps' house, "all of a sudden the boy on the porch with the buck-teeth leaned over the rail and stuck his tongue out at me" (206). After this inauspicious beginning, Mickey later acknowledges Earl's importance to him, saying " I didn't know why but I always wanted him to think high of me, I seemed to need it as much as I needed to eat or breathe" (434).
Mickey dances for Earl. He has danced happily for his mother and much less happily under his father's whipping, but the dancing with Earl is different, for Earl is – as Mickey's mother calls him later in the book – a pagan. Mickey's generous spirit is what initially associates him with Earl, as he is aware that no one will approve of their friendship. He's just asked his mother if he may play with Earl. "I promised I wouldn't [eat anything at Earl's house], wishing with all my heart she'd said I couldn't go so's I'd have an excuse. And as I went out the front door instead of the back to stall for time, as I was crossing the porch I made up my mind to lie and tell him she said I couldn't go, even though God might strike me dead for it. But as I was coming down the steps I saw he was looking off in the woods towards the Mahoney house and he had such a hangdog look like people do sometimes when they don't know somebody's watching them, I didn't have the heart" (316).
Earl is the original dancer of the two, shedding his clothes and dancing for Mickey. Of all those who introduce Mickey to male sexuality – and there are many (his father, the cripple Charley, an anonymous naked man in the woods, Father Mack) – he seems the healthiest. As Earl dances naked "I could see the blood running in his face and down his skin was the same color as the wild roses I picked in May and stuck in milk bottles in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary in my mother and father's bedroom" (343). Mickey begins dancing for Earl, and as he does so "I imagined the grass was hair I was dancing in, like I was dancing in long green hair, like the Indian grass was the long green hair not only in the clearing but over all of the ground everywheres all over the world" (351). Earl is pleased: "I saw he was watching me the way he watched Mickey Mouse or Minnie Mouse or Blondie and Dagwood in his father's comic books, his mouth hanging open showing his big teeth, and breathing through his mouth, his eyes as round as little Orphan Annie's, I saw it was an enjoying himself grin, so that soon I was able to dance around over the Indian grass with nothing on, not even my maryjanes, and felt the grass underneath my feet all soft and springy, it lifted up my feet and helped me dance and made my dunkey grow without my having to pee" (350-351).
This childhood sexuality stands in the book in contrast to Mickey's parents' sexual relations and to the strange advances the priest Father Mack and the cripple Charley make to Mickey. A scene later in the book extends this, as Earl and Mickey include Earl's younger brother and Mickey's younger brother and sister in a game of Slaves and Masters, an elaboration of their earlier dancing for each other. In this scene Earl leads Mickey and his siblings, much against Mickey's will, to their place in the woods.
Mickey's words describing the excitement the children experience playing the game mark it as religious and as pagan as well as sexual. As slaves, the children must bow down, and "when I bowed down Danny and Kate bowed down too like we did in church when we genuflected, the two of them giggling now like it was a real good game and acting like they weren't scared at all of the way Earl Jr. shouted or the way his whip cracked over our heads, it was all a game" (435-436). As they play, their excitement grows. "We danced and danced until we couldn't dance no more, until all of us just fell down in the grass laughing and breathing hard, our faces red as the wild roses blooming everywhere again" (439). These "wild roses," like other appearances of roses in the book, are a mark of health and happiness.
Mickey's mother, though, has the last word in the book about the Snarps and Earl Jr. in particular, saying that they are "nothing but pagans" and that Earl Jr. is "the worst of the lot" (522). She approves more of Timothy Burnside, who becomes the final peer influence on Mickey in the book. Timothy first appears as "Rev," a member of the Swamp Rats, a local gang who menace Mickey and Earl Jr. Timothy's influence saves them from the gang. He becomes more central to Mickey's life when Mickey becomes an altar boy in the local Catholic church. There Timothy is Mickey's mentor. As Father Mack says, "You won't find a better teacher than our Timothy" (509).
Mickey's relationship with Timothy goes beyond this: "he never picked on me. I felt safe when I was with him in the upstairs room, I felt quiet inside, like I didn't have to be scared any more, despite Padric drunk and snoring away in the corner like my father when he had one too many" (515). Mickey learns the Latin phrases of the service "even quicker it turned out than I learned pig latin from Earl Jr., quicker too because I was so eager to please Timothy, I would do anything to please him" (516). Timothy is associated in Mickey's mind with the excitement of Catholicism: "I breathed him in, like if I breathed him in he would be in me, he would be in my heart like when I received holy communion God was in me and I became like Him and if I breathed him in I would become like him . . . " (520).
In spite of this, Earl Jr. remains on Mickey's mind, and there is an indication that his spirit will prevail over Timothy's more conventional appeal. Mickey asserts that "Timothy was different from Earl Jr. in every way, he didn't curse and I never heard him tell a lie or brag and his neck and ears were always clean" (517). Later there is a scene where Mickey seems to reveal – unbeknownst to himself – his preference between them and to depart from his mother's judgment. The whole community turns out to watch the launching of the USS New Jersey. Though other boys are more adventurous, Mickey stands close to his mother with his younger siblings.
Earl Jr. and Timothy are also in attendance. "The Swamp Rats were all up in one of the tallest trees off by themselves, Timothy among them . . . . I wanted to wave to Timothy in the worst way but because he was with those Swamp Rats, I was afraid they might think I was waving at them instead of Rev, as they called him. Then up in the very top of the tallest pine tree almost at the end of the bluff all by himself, I spied Earl Jr. perched up there so casual just like he would be sitting safe on the ground. I waved to him but he never waved back, I figured he was so high up and so far away maybe he never did see me even though I waved and waved and I knew he had eyes even sharper'n Buster and could of seen me if he wanted. The truth is, I made myself believe he didn't see me because I knew he was still miffed at me on account of him saying I had a crush on Timothy and that Timothy was more my boyfriend now than he was. My mother asked me, 'Who you wavin at, you're gonna shake yer arm outa its socket, all that wavin.' I right away said I was waving at Timothy Burnside because I knew she wouldn't like it if I said I was waving at Earl Snarp Jr." (547). Here both Earl Jr.'s position "in the very top of the tallest pine tree" and Mickey's eagerness to communicate indicate his ascendancy. As Mickey leaves, "I looked up in the tree Earl Jr.'d been sitting in easy as a bird, but he was gone" (551). Thus, with this absence, Earl is left behind and simultaneously remains a pagan ideal.
Mickey's voice, "that river of talk," remains throughout the voice of a child; we learn about Mickey's efforts to understand the world of "big people." A "little person" he remains to the end. His nickname, "Mickey," his mother tells him, comes from the Walt Disney cartoon character Mickey Mouse. As she says, "You was such a skinny little runt when you was born you looked like a mouse so that's why I named you after Mickey Mouse in the comic strips" (24). It isn't until he is in school that he learns his name is actually Stanislaus Lithwack Jr (363).
Mickey is first of all a talker. His mother has to tell him frequently to "stop asking so many questions" (15). He keeps a list of "the . . . umpteen questions I had to ask my mother later on" (166). This questioning continues at school (364). This innate curiosity about everything around him is one basis for all his behavior. In addition to questioning, Mickey's talking takes the form of telling stories. Arming himself with stories from the radio and the movies, Mickey is a compulsive story teller. He speaks of "Some days at school I don't know what came over me, I couldn't stop myself from telling stories, just talking and talking" (384). To his teacher Mrs. Feek, his stories were "nothing but lies," but Mickey "didn't think I was lying, my stories were all so true, they really were true to me" (385). The climactic confrontation between Mickey and his father is brought on by Mickey's compulsive story telling: "I couldn't seem to stop talking" (567).
Mickey's curiosity also makes him a good listener. He spends a good deal of time under the dining-room table, listening to adult conversations. "I ducked under the dining room table where everybody'd piled their coats on top and where I'd sometimes hide to play and make up stories and listen when I wasn't supposed to listen. I found out that by stretching myself far as I could towards the parlor and cupping my ears I could hear every single word Aunt Patty was saying, just as when I stretched the other way I could hear every word my father and my uncles was saying out in the kitchen, though I didn't have to put my hands to my ears to hear them, they was yacking so loud now, excepting when one of them told a joke and dropped his voice so low I had to strain all the harder to hear" (129). Mickey's point about listening "when I wasn't supposed to listen" seems especially important. He also overhears his parents' conversations. Listening to his father trying to convince his mother to move "I was hardly breathing for fear I'd get caught or miss something" (151).
Even after they move to the country, Mickey continues to use the dining-room table as a listening post: dismissed by his mother "I dived under the dining room table just like I done in South Philly when there was something I wanted to hear" (198). The table also serves as a secure hiding place. Appalled by his father's renewed drinking, Mickey "couldn't stand to watch it and wormed my way back into the dining room where I got in under the dining room table and hid myself behind the lace table cloth hanging down all around, squeezing my legs up and pressing my head on my knees, glad at last to find a place to be by myself that was dark and nobody squeezing around you and stepping on you because when you are little big people don't see you and step on you" (412). Mickey's Aunt Nell delivers the adult judgment on this behavior. "He's a strange one, ain't he? always wantin to listen in where the women is even when you lived on Mifflin Street, Nora, he always had his ears open" (496).
Mickey is aware of his own strangeness; there are many things about himself, as well as the world around him, that he doesn't understand. At school, his reading skills promote him to the head of the class, and "I was feeling glad now, not so much that I was smart, because that would've been the sin of pride as Sister Joseph Mary warned us about, but that I didn't feel so much like I was peculiar" (540). He speaks of being possessed of "an excitement [that] would grab ahold me out of nowhere and make me sing or dance in the parlor whether my mother was there or not" (69).
Mickey is also excited and bewildered by adult sexuality. All of the adult sexual relationships seem equally unhealthy to Mickey. Only his games with the scamp Earl Jr. suggest the possibility of a healthy sexuality. In this he resembles Alcott's Jo March, who also resists the conventions of her gender in Little Women. But this is all still a mystery to Mickey; after all, he's only eight. His response to Charley reminds us of his childhood stature. "At first I didn't think he was talking to me, grownups didn't always talk to me, even a grownup that's cripple, when you are so little and close to the ground it's like big people don't see you and you don't count" (311). Mickey insists on a special world of childhood, forgotten or neglected by adults. He reflects on this, he and his brothers "figuring, without ever having to say it, there are things there is no use telling older people, specially mothers and fathers, things I was beginning to learn we all knew in some deep place between ourselves but didn't have no words for, some place that was dark and deep where there wasn't any words any more" (313).
Mickey returns to this idea three times more in the narrative, all occasions on which he is variously introduced to the mysteries of human sexuality. On the first occasion, Earl Jr. is showing Mickey pornographic versions of comic books. "I looked and looked but didn't know what it meant in words but knew, in that deep dark place where there weren't no words, just what it was, like Charley on the beach asking did we have any problems and like the big-eared man all bare in the woods, it both scared and excited me all at the same time" (346). Returning from the game of Slaves and Masters, Mickey and his younger siblings won't say anything about the game to their mother, knowing "from that day with red-haired Charley down on the beach, there were some thing you couldn't ever tell big people" (441). Finally, after his encounter with Father Mack, "I began to know something I didn't know before, something with no name, something like that day on the beach when Charley showed up asking us did we have any problems, something that's so deep and dark it didn't have no name" (525). Mickey hasn't yet learned the words to deal with this part of his life.
It's tempting to read Mickey's story as the story of a child growing into his gay sexuality. It's also tempting to read it as a kind of a portrait of the childhood of an artist. After all, Michael Rumaker, the author, is both. But to do so would be to underestimate the actual achievement of the book. Both these readings focus, not on the narrative itself but on what it suggests about Mickey's eventual adulthood. The political and economic events of 1932 and 1941 give the book a frame; Mickey's family's fragmentation and reunion give it a structure, Mickey's voice, the voice of a child, "that river of talk," gives it a unity. "I hate that kid's voice," said one publisher in the course of rejecting Rumaker's typescript, and his comment goes right to the heart of the book and testifies to the power of Mickey's voice. Pagan Days is at once an idyll of childhood in the tradition of Tom Sawyer, a critique of the social and economic order in the tradition of Huckleberry Finn, and a critique of the gender stereotyping of adulthood in the tradition of Little Women, those things "there is no use telling older people," in all an extraordinary achievement.
Pagan Days is published by Circumstantial Productions Publishing, Six South Broadway, Nyack, New York 10960 and is available from the publisher, from local bookstores, and from various websites. A brief treatment of Pagan Days appears in my Eroticizing the Nation: Michael Rumaker's Fiction (Asheville, NC: Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center, 1999: 62-64). The only other published work on Pagan Days is a review/essay by Jeffery Beam that appeared in The North Carolina Literary Review, Number 11, 2002: 172-174. The above essay develops themes encountered in Beam's review as well as in unpublished responses to the book in letters and e-mails to Michael Rumaker from Anne Geismar, Jack Shoemaker, Allyn Leidig, Donald Allen, Carl Morse, and especially John DeWind. My thanks to Michael Rumaker for making these available.