Bit parts

The author of "Wonders of the Invisible World" picks five great literary walk-ons.


David Gates
February 14, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

I know it sounds arty to claim that literature works miracles -- tries to, anyhow -- but what else would you call the creation of absolutely convincing virtual humans, using nothing more techy than words? Not just the Don Quixotes, the Anna Kareninas, the Leopold Blooms -- those giant-size protagonists who get to parade themselves in scene after scene. The miracle works just as uncannily in those minor (or even less-than-minor) characters who appear, speak a few lines and disappear back into stories their creators have no time to tell. These characters are often obsessives, grotesques, solipsists: stars of their own inner dramas, glimpsed in midrant and, for all we know, still there ranting to this very day. Often their creators never even name them; in the story we're reading, they're important only to themselves, and the main characters soon forget them. Yet we remember them, treasure them, believe in them -- as if we could highlight them, double-click and make their untold stories begin to play. Here are five walk-on characters who occupy space in our consciousness (and in their own) out of all proportion to their space on the page.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens: The "goroo" man (Onstage time: two pages.)

This is the filthy, drunken used-clothing dealer to whom the young runaway David sells his jacket. "'Oh, what do you want?' grinned this old man, in a fierce, monotonous whine. 'Oh, my eyes and limbs, what do you want? O, my lungs and liver, what do you want? Oh, goroo, goroo!'" The lungs and liver alone would make him a comic nightmare, but that growling howl really does the trick. They strike a bargain for eighteenpence, but the old man keeps David waiting the rest of a long day, darting into his shop to lie on his bed and sing the "Death of Nelson," then darting out again to offer unwanted goods in trade -- a fishing rod, a fiddle -- rather than give up cash. Meanwhile, the neighborhood boys taunt him: "'Bring out some of the gold you sold yourself to the devil for. Come! It's in the lining of the mattress, Charley.'" (Until looking this passage up, I'd forgotten he had a name.) It's funny as hell -- particularly the "Death of Nelson" -- but it is hell, the same yesterday as it will be tomorrow. And the goroo man is a damned soul: Ebenezer Scrooge without the beneficent ghosts, without the wormy dignity, almost without language and mind.

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Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: The Kasbeam barber (Onstage time: one long sentence.)

In a fictional Midwestern town on Humbert and Lo's aimless itinerary, Humbert gets "a very mediocre haircut" from "a very old barber"; he periodically stops his "tremulous scissor work" to show faded clippings about his son, a baseball player who's been dead 30 years and whose "easeled photograph" stands among "ancient gray lotions." In his afterword, Nabokov points to this episode as one of "the nerves of the novel ... the subliminal co-ordinates by means of which the book is plotted." I've never quite known what to make of this -- beyond the obvious point that the sentimentally obsessed old barber, like Humbert, is doing his damnedest to stop time -- nor can I imagine why a single sentence, with one colon, should have taken "a month of work." (Well, actually, yes I can.) Either I'm thick or Nabokov's overselling this. Still, it's a moment of sorrowful beauty. How many, many customers, before and after Humbert, must have had to look at those damn clippings?

Stern by Bruce Jay Friedman: The "romantic gentleman" (Onstage time: two pages.)

The eponymous hero of Friedman's 1962 first novel recalls going into a bar during his hitch in the Air Force. A civilian flying instructor, "with much blond hair curled romantically down over his forehead," picks up a hooker ("Come, woman, and drink my wine") and invites Stern to sit with them: "Let the Jew join us, too. I'll not close our circle to the Jew." Stern explains he's not a pilot, but the man won't hear it: "Big Jew, you fly a deadly plane. Drink deep with me. The woman drinks well, too." Stern first takes offense, then rethinks: "He saw me as the strong and quiet Jew in a brigade of international fighters. I might have been the Big Swede or the Big Prussian, but I was the Big Jew, the quiet, silent one with bitter memories and a past of mystery." Using only his voice, seemingly cobbled together out of Hemingway and Omar Khayyam, the romantic gentleman magically transmutes anti-Semitism into Casablancoid camaraderie, and imaginatively transports Stern from a Wyoming gin mill into "a small bar in Macao, among scarred people with grave crimes in their past, at the world's end now, saying only bitter, philosophical things and waiting to die." (Part of the fun of Stern is this back-and-forth between cheesy clichi and genuine pain, if that's your idea of fun.) And, having established his voice, Friedman gives him the perfect curtain line: "The gentleman said, 'I've tasted too much of wine,' got to his feet unsteadily, and walked out of the club, the hooker supporting his arm."

The Mother Hunt by Rex Stout: The "button fiend" (Onstage time: two and a half pages.)

OK, sure, it's ostentatiously pomo and anti-elitist to stick a 1963 Nero Wolfe mystery in with all this august stuff, but trust me: This is a wonderful book. The button fiend actually has a full name -- Nicholas Losseff -- and a business address: the Exclusive Novelty Button Company, on West 39th Street in Manhattan. It would take too long to explain why Wolfe's legman (and Stout's narrator) Archie Goodwin brings him baby's overalls with weird-looking buttons, but you don't need to know that to know him. "You listen, young man. I know more about buttons than any man in the world ... I have sold buttons to the Duchess of Windsor, to Queen Elizabeth, and to Miss Bette Davis ... I know absolutely that no man could show me a button I couldn't place, but you have done so. Where did you get them?" It's all right there: his pride (which needs a little celebrity backup), his panic and, above all, his fierce and ultimately selfless curiosity. Archie's last word on him -- "If I ever get as hipped as he was on just one thing, it won't be buttons" -- is the sane, normative, worldly response. But Wolfe, the orchid-growing, gourmandizing polymath, would recognize Nicholas Losseff as a secular saint.

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Hamlet by William Shakespeare: The first gravedigger (Onstage time: half a scene.)

The stage directions just call him "Clown": that is, a rustic; his companion (called "Other") addresses him as Goodman (i.e., Mr.) Delver, a merely generic name. He sings and tells riddles while digging Ophelia's grave; he even has the impertinence to bandy words with a bemused Hamlet -- and gets the better of the exchange. Doesn't he realize who he's dicking around with? This isn't just the young Danish prince: This is the top gun of the English language, the guy who's already rattled off the "To be or not to be" soliloquy, told Ophelia to get herself to a nunnery, seriously messed with Claudius', Polonius', Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's heads, wittily instructed a bunch of actors on their craft and staged "The Mousetrap" to catch the conscience of the king. Yet the most intelligent character in all literature (according to Harold Bloom) ends up as the gravedigger's straight man:

Hamlet: Ay, marry, why was he sent into England?

Clown: Why, because 'a was mad. 'A shall recover his wits there; or, if 'a do not, 'tis not great matter there.

Hamlet: Why?

Clown: 'Twill not be seen in him there. There the men are as mad as he.

Would the gravedigger be impressed by Hamlet's title? Hardly: He claims to be in Adam's line of work. Or if he knew what we know about Hamlet's exquisitely dawning perception of mortality? Not likely: For him, mortality isn't exactly breaking news, and he'd never sit through a five-act play only to be told at the end that "the rest is silence." And that play would seem significantly sillier without his -- literally -- earthy contempt for all pretense and artiness.

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David Gates

David Gates is a staff critic for Newsweek and the author of three books of fiction, including, most recently, "Wonders of the Invisible World."

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