Hitting the Charts

By Leon Rooke

Hitting the Charts has a great cover. It’s a picture of author Leon Rooke in profile, standing before a microphone. The reason it’s so good is because Rooke’s stories, of which this is a selection of the best, are all about voice. Voice . . . and very little else.

A Foreword by editor John Metcalf emphasizes this point. “Many of Rooke’s stories are simply voices talking directly to us.” Note how easily the question of content is finessed. The story is the voice. Questions like what a particular story is about, or what it means, are “earnest irrelevancies.” As readers we can only sit back and listen.

Metcalf’s hyper-aestheticism is probably the safest approach to Rooke’s Tales From the Madhouse. Readers looking for a story with a point are likely to find themselves flopping about like fish on the bottom of a boat. The titles alone are fantastic hooks: “Adolpho’s Disappeared and We Haven’t a Clue Where To Find Him,” “Some People Will Tell You the Situation at Henny Penny Nursery Is Getting Intolerable,” and of course the classic: “Sixteen-Year-Old Susan March Confesses To the Innocent Murder of All the Devious Strangers Who Would Drag Her Down.” Innocent murder?

Is it allegory? Magic realism? Theatre of the Absurd? Spoken word? Or is what Metcalf labels the “Rookian” sensibility something entirely unique?

After a while you learn to just let go. Whatever solid ground the “story” provides typically reveals itself as either the product of a distorted consciousness or a literary prank. Things don’t make a lot of sense. Indeed, the performances here may be the closest thing to energy and imagination without form this country has ever seen in prose. The only structure to these freestyle improvisations and essays in narrative technique is the sheer force of propulsion that follows from their initial impulse: “Here’s a story.” And they seem to end only when the narrator runs out of breath.

Voice is about more than just the creation of an idiosyncratic style or manner of speech. In fact the more Rooke does this, especially with his various ethnic dialects, the less convincing the voice sounds. The foundation of voice is an ear for the pace and rhythm of the spoken as opposed to the written word. Speech – at least before the advent of the sound bite, which ruined everything – is closer to poetry than prose. It is language built around rhythmic place-holders, repetitions, and regular breath-stops. It is economic in its word count and immediate in its effect. Most of all, it is insistent for attention:

I don’t know. It comes over me sometimes, settles over me sometimes as unexpectedly and as beautifully as the first snow, as snow on a sunny day – my change. I do change. I feel myself suddenly go beautiful under this heavy coat. I go up another inch on my heels, everyone desires me. They sell my pin-ups at the five and dime. SPECIAL THIS WEEK AT K-MART, FOUR SHOTS FOR $1.

There’s nothing that stands out about this particular paragraph, but the movement from the formulaic verbal introduction “I don’t know” (always a signal that someone is about to launch into a rant about what they do know) through the numerous repetitions, the struggle to find the right adverb, and the wonderful shorthand of “go beautiful” (which is something you’d never write), to the triumphant and hysterical conclusion (the narrator is a madwoman), demonstrates what makes Rooke such a master. It’s not clear, even when read in context, just what the woman is talking about, but the way she talks throws you over the shoulder and carries you along.

Hitting the Charts is a magical, compelling book filled with the music of strange voices. Just listen.

Review first published February 24, 2007.

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