His father’s son

An unflagging loyalty to his profession and its principles had made Arthur, over the years, increasingly deliberate in his speech and actions, and increasingly exacting regarding the truth in even his most casual reportage. He was, his son remembered, morally meticulous, and though Ishmael might strive to emulate this, there was nevertheless this matter of the war – this matter of the arm he’d lost – that made such scrupulosity difficult. He had a chip on his shoulder: it was a sort of black joke he had shared with himself, a double entendre, made silently. He didn’t like very many people anymore or very many things, either. He preferred not to be this way, but there it was, he was like that. His cynicism – a veteran’s cynicism – was a thing that disturbed him all the time. It seemed to him after the war that the world was thoroughly altered. It was not even a thing you could explain to anybody, why it was that everything was folly. People appeared enormously foolish to him. He understood that they were only animated cavities full of jelly and strings and liquids. He had seen the insides of jaggedly ripped-open dead people. He knew, for instance, what brains looked like spilling out of somebody’s head. In the context of this, much of what went on in normal life seemed wholly and disturbingly ridiculous. He found that he was irritated with complete strangers. If somebody in one of his classes spoke to him he answered stiffly, tersely. He could never tell if they were relaxed enough about his arm to say what they were really thinking. He sensed their need to extend sympathy to him, and this irritated him even more. The arm was a grim enough thing without that, and he felt sure it was entirely disgusting. He could repel people if he chose by wearing to class a short-sleeved shirt that revealed the scar tissue on his stump. He never did this, however. He didn’t exactly want to repel people. Anyway, he had this view of things – that most human activity was utter folly, his own included, and that his existence in the world made others nervous. He could not help but possess this unhappy perspective, no matter how much he might not want it. It was his and he suffered from it numbly.

Later, when he was no longer so young and back home on San Piedro Island, this view of things began to moderate. He learned to be cordial to everyone – a sophisticated and ultimately false front. Add to the cynicism of a man wounded in war the inevitable cynicism of growing older and the professional cynicism of the journalist. Gradually Ishmael came to view himself as a one-armed man with a pinned-up sleeve, past thirty and unmarried. It was not so bad, and he was not so irritated as he had once been in Seattle. Still, though, there were those tourists, he thought, as he walked down Hill-Street towards the docks. All summer they looked at his pinned-up sleeve with the surprised unaccustomed faces his fellow islanders had stopped making. And with their ice cream and clean faces they elicited in his gut again that bilious, unwanted irritation. The strange thing was, he wanted to like everyone. He just couldn’t find a way to do it.

His mother, who was fifty-six and lived alone in the old family house on the south end of the island – the house where Ishmael had lived as a child – had pointed out to him when he’d come home from the city that this cynicism of his, while understandable, was on the other hand entirely unbecoming. His father before him had had it, she said, and it had been unbecoming in him, too.

‘He loved humankind dearly and with all his heart, but he disliked most human beings,’ she’d told Ishmael. ‘You’re the same, you know. You’re your father’s son.’

David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars

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Comments

  • K. M.  On August 28, 2009 at 12:11 am

    Haven’t read Guterson. The writing style seems eerily familiar though. I am not sure why. Any ideas?

    • Aristotle The Geek  On August 28, 2009 at 11:06 pm

      I kept swinging between Maugham (for some reason) and Lee. The wiki article says Snow… is influenced by Lee’s …Mockingbird. Both deal with similar issues and are poignantly beautiful works. That must be it.

  • K. M.  On August 28, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    Yes. Must be Lee. I have only read ‘Of Human Bondage’ by Maugham and that was a very long time ago. Don’t recollect much.

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