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June1999
Scissors, Paper, Rock
by Fenton Johnson
Bill Goodman: Hi everybody, and welcome back to the bookclub@ket. Our June selection is Scissors, Paper, Rock by New Haven, Kentucky native Fenton Johnson. Hello to our book club members once again gathered around the table: Cait ...
Cait: Hi, Bill.
Bill: ... and Rochelle ...
Rochelle: Hi, Bill.
Bill: ... Jonathan ...
Jonathan: Hi, Bill.
Bill: ... and Dava.
Dava: Hello.
Rochelle: Well, I'll tell you was anybody as moved by this book as I was? I mean just moved by the writing, by the characters, more than any other book except the Memory of Old Jack. I just I kept reading little portions over and over again.
Dava: It was a book that very much dealt with emotions, how people struggled inside on the inside you know when you do struggle through your emotions and think about things and how you take view on certain subjects it changes all the time and I kind of thought you were getting a stream of consciousness flow sometimes, I don't know.
Rochelle: I don't know his innermost thoughts or I think you are right. But who is this Fenton Johnson I thought, God, I wish I had read this book before somebody gave me this book several years ago and I put it aside because I know him and I didn't know if it was good. Now I am kicking myself I could have had some of this like years ago.
Bill: Well there was a whole range of emotions and we talked about that Jonathan uh it ran from grief certainly there is a there is a death and dying aspect of all of this and a lot more too.
Jonathan: That's true and one sense it is its a book about griefs and uh all different griefs the different members of the family have and uh I mean it suppose it is a portrait of a family isn't it? A family in the south and uh various members of the family are explored in different chapters and one of the strong things about it I think is on the one hand its a novel and holds together as a novel as a continuous story. But on the other hand each chapter is almost like a short story in itself. I mean did you feel like that you know you could I mean I know that some of the chapters had been published in journals prior to this and I think most of the chapters you could read them uh independent of the other chapters and uh they are such vivid, rich, highly nuanced, highly complexed descriptions of characters in themselves they don't have to be seen in the context of the whole mosaic although when they are seen in that context its very powerful. I agree with you.
Rochelle: Was it confusing to you?
Cait: It was a little confusing because its not linear.
Rochelle: Yeah.
Cait: But I agree with Jonathan that each piece could stand alone uh.
Jonathan: Now the reason why you might say its confusing is for instance the last chapter.
Rochelle: Well it was just confusing period.
Jonathan: Yeah well the last chapter isn't the uh the last chapter is really the Ms. Camilla's farewell but the previous chapter uh I mean I don't think its all in chronological order actually.
Cait: No, but.
Jonathan: It's not in chronological order.
Rochelle: It's not in chronological order at all.
Jonathan: As you got toward the end.
Bill: No, uh huh.
Rochelle: But what I liked was the very first story, which I thought was I thought it was a book of short stories. That story was so powerful and I was so moved about by this character Tom Hardin and who he was and how crude but how loving in his own way he could be for his life and the things that were important to him. You don't really know it its sort of like my grandfather. I could tell that he had some good about him but then it was over and I thought oh man you know that was really great. I'd love to know more about those characters then you get more about those characters just in different times and I thought well what is this about once you sort of caught on to where they were in life I actually liked it.
Bill: Well it is about the Hardin family and in all the members at least all the members what uh seven children or so.
Rochelle: Uh huh.
Bill: Tom Hardin married to Rose Ella now that is the first time we have mentioned her. We mentioned Ms. Camilla but they all sort of in fact I think they are all on the very first page of the of the novel there.
Dava: There is a little family tree in there somewhere.
Bill: Yeah, and the family tree's great to kind of help. Well we will talk a little bit more about Tom and then his wife Rose Ella too and what kind of character she was.
Cait: I thought one of the really best chapters in this book was the chapter where their son, Clarke, has been they uh the soldiers come to the door and tell them that their son has died in the war in Vietnam and that was that was a really lovely chapter. How they uh each individually dealt with their grief. And retreating into themselves and you know its this horrible situation that binds them together forever and yet there is this river uh that separates them too. But uh I liked uh Tom Hardin there is there's a really good passage here I'll read a passage that talks about grief. Uh on page 71. "Grief is like any wound some terrible pleasure resides in it better to need that pain that terrible pleasure than to have nothing at all. If love fulfills itself in companionship grief fulfills itself in solitude for we grieve finally and necessarily less for the dead than for our living selves. Our loneness and our survival are inescapable invitation to the dance."
Rochelle: Wow.
Bill: And I agree too because that that chapter uh I think if we didn't have a full definition of Tom Hardin before then I think that was the chapter that that maybe makes him a less likable character through the rest of the book.
Cait: Uh huh.
Bill: Because of what Clarke's death his son's death did to did to him and how did he uh how did he act about I mean....
Cait: He retreated into his woodshop and he drank he just drank.
Rochelle: This was the drinkingest man I have ever seen.
Cait: And then uh can I just read one more.
Rochelle: Sure.
Cait: 'Cause I thought this was really lovely how she dealt with it. She dealt with it by taking flowers to his grave every day not every day but. "The flowers on Clarke's grave evoked for Rose Ella the progression of the seasons. She measures for example the end of summer by the day when she cuts the last violet in fluorescence of iron weed from the fields. His grave comes to her comes for her to represent time passing. Her own mortality and she goes and stands before his plain white cross and grieves into the unbroken gray stillness of her heart."
Bill: Uh huh.
Cait: I just think that is so sad.
Rochelle: That is such powerful writing.
Jonathan: It's powerfully written and its funny the narrator of this book is so articulate about people's emotions I mean he's really as a narrator of the novel he's really stretching he is taking it as far as he can go as far as exploring you know the darkness in people's minds the darkness in our emotions. And its kind of the exact opposite of what's happening in a family because as you said the family they turn in on themselves. They are they are the least articulate family that you can see, that you have ever seen in fiction. They are not able to talk to each other about those griefs.
Rochelle: Or about anything.
Jonathan: Or about anything.
Cait: Its amazing.
Jonathan: So it's so really dependent on the narrator to tell us things because they don't tell those things to each other.
Cait: Right.
Rochelle: Well there is another passage that speaks to that so well. Now think here is this couple and you know they are a typical couple, they have got seven kids, everybody sort of has their role in life and they have to learn what their role is without any help from their parents because what they do is get you started and nudge you and that's what they think is supposed to happen. But her oldest son (laughs) drinks like his father and she wants her baby son, Raphael to stop him and this passage I laughed out loud. Literally I mean I kept reading this and laughing over and over. "Joe Ray who is the oldest son still asleep shifted his weight with a grunt. I thought I asked you to talk to your oldest brother about his drinking Rosella said. I thought you asked me just the opposite that's Raphael. Well I didn't mean for you to come right out and say it to his face, Lord, what a thought. That's the problem with you Californians you think everything has to be tackled head on."
  (everyone laughs)
Rochelle: "Like everything under the sun that people do has got an explanation and if you talk long enough you'll find out what it is. When the only thing you can really do is give things a little nudge and then hope for the best like they raised their kids. Like with your brother you can talk about something without saying it you can talk to him about his drinking just be careful not to mention it."
  (everyone laughs)
Rochelle: That is hilarious.
Bill: Yes.
Rochelle: That is so true.
Cait: Its so southern.
Rochelle: Yes, yes.
  (everyone laughs)
Bill: Well, they did do that and this is about Rose Ella and it goes back to the way they uh they did communicate or, of course, the way they did not communicate within the family uh when she is thinking she and her husband, she and her daughters, she and her sons, of all of them this was true. They had been less than honest with each other because they had not wanted to speak of these matters because non had wanted to hear what they others were unwilling to say.
Jonathan: Uh huh.
Rochelle: Wow
Bill: So its that it its the kind of family that uh they operated within uh the alliances that they formed and uh lets talk to we mentioned Tom, the father Rose Ella, his wife and uh you mentioned Joe Ray the oldest son uh Dava the youngest son was Raphael and he's the one that has gone to California and has come back and uh I it if there was a central character was it Raphael or was it two or three of them all mixed in together.
Dava: I never thought that there was a central character at all really. I just thought it was a different story uh about each person in the family or at least four or five of them. Uh I just thought the book primarily concerned how they worked around their problems, 'cause it never mentioned really good times the family had it was just problems everyone faces and different problems, drinking problems for Joe Ray and then general problems of communications for Rose Ella and Tom and then Raphael had to struggle with his sexuality and with confronting others about it and Betty C. had problems with commitment and uh finding a place, finding a niche for herself, even unto the end of the book and so uh I just think each of them has a kind of a spotlight on them at once you know at a different time. I don't.
Bill: Uh huh.
Rochelle: Those are great character capsules that's exactly how they were.
  (everyone laughs)
Bill: Those are the ones that we know of and, of course, there are some mentioned
Cait: Oh yeah.
Bill: in the family tree that we don't know about.
Jonathan: Although one or two of the characters like for instance uh Clarke I think there are one or two chapters about Clarke and then he is killed in the Vietnam war and then there is one chapter about Joe Ray and his car accident and then we don't hear about them again. Whereas Raphael it does actually come back to him. I think I mean that they the narrator's attention comes back to him or our attention comes back to him over and over again until I think finally the short chapter in which he dies uh and some extent uh its more about the impact of his illness and death on the family than it is on other peoples death don't you think?
Rochelle: Don't you think this is a book about dying?
Jonathan: Well I think it was about uh how a family deals with grief in various ways.
Rochelle: Okay.
Jonathan: It was about how they dealt with Clarke's grief I mean you describe beautifully how he how that chapter dealt with Clarke's death and uh you know they watched Walter Conkright on television every night watching.
Cait: Yeah.
Jonathan: the Vietnam war and then the body came home and then the war ended and they didn't watch it any more and.
Bill: Uh huh.
Jonathan: It was oh it was so well done I thought. Slice of social realism there.
Rochelle: Uh huh.
Jonathan: Same time as it was very honest about emotions.
Cait: Yeah, but they are not talking to each other at all and you know, of course, you can understand why he was unable to come home and tell his parents that he had AIDS and was dying.
Bill: Yeah.
Dava: I think it maybe just talks about Raphael more because he was so alone. Everyone else had a family to go back to or maybe at least one constant lover like Betty C. had Andrew but it never really identifies a constant person in his life until the very end for Raphael he like Ms. Camilla he has her and for a while he communicates with his mother but he's struggling all by himself I feel.
Bill: But Raphael
Dava: That's what makes it so.
Bill: He did have a family. He had a family in California.
Dava: Kind of family but...
Jonathan: Yeah,
Bill: He had a family...
Jonathan: That's interesting
Bill: He had a family in California.
Dava: It's not like a family he carries around like with him like physically.
Woman: Uh huh.
Dava: He doesn't show up at the family reunion with a....
Rochelle: And when you have to live with a foot in two...
Dava: Five people
Rochelle: worlds, and I know what that's like. That's still hard and that's still not having family wherever you are.
Dava: Uh huh.
Rochelle: It's like having to play duel roles and having duel people that you have to love who don't get to know each other. So you have to be two different people, the person he was for Tom Hardin and the person he was when he was happy and in San Francisco which was another thing I thought was just so telling about how they didn't talk to each other in all the references to his going away and going to some place and you don't and there are all the hints about what's what's wrong what's different about him. And then they mention things like San Francisco and his guy friends and you realize oh my God they are talking about him being gay and this is how they treat it.
Bill: Uh huh.
Cait: Uh huh.
Rochelle: And that is what he had to deal with.
Cait: Uh huh.
Jonathan: I think I think the book does explore really what does what is a family. Is a family something you are born into and that maybe is full of bitterness about things that you do.
Woman: Uh huh.
Jonathan: Or is a family can you also define it in terms of your group of friends. Uh it was could I just draw your attention to one passage this is where Elizabeth the sister uh is throwing away scattering the ashes.
Jonathan: Of the brother from the boat beyond Golden Gate Bridge and what she has to say seems to suggest that family is not just something you are born into but you know in a sense we are all part of larger groups which are important too. She says uh "Standing amid Raphael's adopted family Elizabeth realizes that her own family has no fixes boundaries but is eternally changing a river whose banks are formed by all those to whom she chooses to bind herself with the joys and burdens of love." And so I think that in a sense its I mean I'm not saying oh you know peace and love man! You know but rather its saying that
  (everyone laughs)
Jonathan: you can (inaudible)
  (everyone laughs)
Bill: Just because it was San Francisco.
  (everyone laughs)
Jonathan: Yeah, I mean uh flowers in your hair but I think I think that that this idea of going beyond boundaries is something that uh that whole novel is about. Well because the boundaries can be so constricting for these characters.
Bill: We we've often talked about uh some of our books being uh about a sense of place and about uh what it means to be a Kentuckian and have that and this is more about to me a sense of family. And what the relationships all meant. In other words this is its sort of more uh something that uh that is like emotion it its hard to depict its hard to picture, its hard to grasp and talk about yet, of course, the book is full of a range of emotions as we talked about earlier.
Rochelle: But there is still a sense of place because they were all trying to find their place in the family and who and how they...
Bill: Uh huh.
Rochelle: ...related to Tom Hardin this matriarch who it was impossible to get near. Uh I'll never forget like the very first date he had with his wife to be and he was late and her mom was giving her whatfor I told you I told you and when he finally shows up and she tells him he is late he goes what's time to a hog. I'm like
  (everyone laughs)
Rochelle: Oh I got to write that down.
  (everyone laughs)
Rochelle: You know he's just this this awful awful person until you see those little slices of humanity like when they go to trap foxes and she accidentally - maybe accidentally - lets go of his dog and the dog runs into the river trying to get to the other female horny dogs oops did I say that.
  (everyone laughs)
Rochelle: on the other side.
  (everyone laughs)
Rochelle: And and he runs into the river and dies. And he wades out there trying to get to him and there is this sense that you know he really does have some shred of humanity and love.
Cait: Well that's why she marries him eventually.
Rochelle: That was it.
Cait: That is what ties her to him forever.
Rochelle: I think you are right.
Cait: That and lust maybe.
Rochelle: Yeah.
  (everyone laughs)
Bill: Well too you know well that was a was that not a different Tom Hardin than you meet later on though. I mean, I think that was a Tom Hardin that was I mean was he always the same kind of character that you see in the in the woodshop as you talked about before. I guess maybe I have a different sort of feeling about him in trying to see him as a younger man sort of adventurous and someone who would like to go out and do things in the outdoors and that sort of thing. Funny making those comments and she did fall in love with that Tom Hardin don't you think?
Cait: Well, I don't think he honestly I don't think he had very many redeeming qualities at all. (laughs)
Rochelle: I don't think he changed much.
Bill: Well I didn't say redeeming qualities.
Cait: I don't think he changed.
  (everyone laughs)
Cait: I don't think he changed, I don't think he changed after very much.
Rochelle: I think he just got stuck in the woodshop because of being ill and that is where he went but I didn't see where...
Bill: Well he went to the he really did he not go to the woodshop after uh Clarke's...
Cait: After Clarke died.
Bill: I mean that's when he really
Rochelle: Well that was his safe haven.
Dava: I think when he was younger he was more of a an adventuresome man on his own and he didn't really see the need to tie himself even to his family. Then as he got older he started to understand the whole concept of uh a continuum -- a continuum of life being able to pass something on and it talks about how he had regretted that he didn't really teach his art of woodworking to his sons because that would really bond them together and he I think he really wanted to but it was just to late and that just made him bitter.
Jonathan: Well I think.
Cait: I agree there.
Cait: I agree with you and I think when Clarke died uh he feel so such pain about it that he says at that point he says at last he knew what it felt like to be a father.
Everyone: Uh huh.
Jonathan: But he only learned what it felt like to be a father having lost a son. But he didn't learn from that how then to be a father to the other son to Raphael.
Bill: Uh huh.
Jonathan: I mean he was unable to take that moment of knowledge and put it into practice. I think that is one of the things the novel is interested in is how he people in a family they know what they should do but they can't.
Bill: Well its those relationships and uh that that why I think its so much about that it is such a strength of the novel to is the way he interacted or didn't act at all uh with the other members of the family. Uh I think...
Rochelle: But so many men are like that though.
Bill: Well and I think I think men uh might have been.
Rochelle: From that generation.
Bill: Exactly from that generation that uh that that fathers who grew up in the depression.
Rochelle: Yes, yes.
Bill: That had to work uh like dogs to support a family and went through the war uh uh the big war uh W.W.II and they were withdrawn a great deal. They worked that's when men worked and women worked six days a week.
Cait: Uh huh.
Bill: Uh Uh and you didn't have a lot of time uh so I think I think that's reflected I think I think Fenton Johnson does a remarkable job of painting that picture.
Cait: I really got the feeling though that that Tom Hardin really despised women in some ways. And this and he passed that on to his sons. I mean not Raphael but.
Jonathan: Joe Ray.
Cait: Joe Ray. The scene in the car with the woman.
Jonathan: Yeah.
Bill: Yeah, that was startling wasn't it.
Cait: Yeah it was really startling and.
Jonathan: He is violent with her and we are told that that's the only way Tom Hardin can deal with things is to get angry and get violent.
Cait: Right. And and
Jonathan: He does the same.
Cait: Women are emotional and how dare they be emotional and have that outlet and and.
Dava: And he is angry with his wife for cleaning up after herself because that doesn't leave him anything any job of his own.
Cait: Right.
Dava: To connect to her.
Cait: And she and the woman he punches her because she calls him on it. She says you know it takes one to know one when.
  (woman laughs)
Cait: He brings up she she brings up his drinking which is the cause of this tragic accident that has left his son in a coma. But uh and he despises her for that. And I think she was she was saying what Rose Ella was never able to say.
Jonathan: Um
Cait: To Tom Hardin.
Bill: If there was for me a pivotal chapter if you will an pivotal is maybe not the right word but uh the Scissors, Paper, Rockchapter which is I guess is the I didn't count but it certainly.
Jonathan: The longest chapter.
Bill: The longest chapter.
Rochelle: It was.
Cait: (laughs)
Bill: But and I've read this and Jonathan you've said this before about writing a dialogue a conversation is so difficult for a writer and I just thought that you learn so much about each member of the family uh it all just sort of came together then uh you went through and uh there was some joy in that too. I mean the uh let's talk about some of the minor characters like for example the partying monks uh.
  (everyone laughs)
Bill: They lived near a monastery uh
  (everyone laughs)
Bill: As of course, you know New Haven, Kentucky is near Gethsemane and and this novel.
Rochelle: I wonder if he is going to get sued. (laughs)
Bill: No I don't think so.
Rochelle: No, I'm teasing.
Bill: Well what did you think about them. I mean there were certain elements.
Rochelle: Drunk monks
Bill: at the picnic. The picnic was it was sort of everybody came together and talked...
Jonathan: It was a great scene it was a scene that it was one of the most comic scenes because you have all the social comedy there particularly when one or two people said something a little bit you know that was maybe treading on somebody else's toes and then the narrator just says silence and you can just imagine how nobody responds because they don't know what to say.
Bill: Uh huh.
Jonathan: Did you think it was comic?
Rochelle: Well, no because I was looking at my family I mean we our barbecues are like that and I there were so many little touching moments that that sort of took some of the laughter away for me like them setting a place for Clarke you know who's dead.
Cait: Huh. Uh huh.
Bill: Uh huh.
Rochelle: And then the scene uh Cait will appreciate this when uh Raphael finally decides he's going to go out. This is late everybody is sort of cleaned up and the nephews are out playing cards and Raphael decided to go out and tell them that he is gay and you know his friends and I mean that is a beautiful and passion speech. My friends are dying in California nobody cares and uh I have this awful disease and they look at him and go oh yeah we didn't know anything about this stuff and he said well I could have told you and they but you're gay like dismissing him when at his moment of triumph when he's finally able to reveal himself and so there was some humor but I was just so hurt for him throughout so much of that time because. There is this big family gathering but still no real talking going on.
Jonathan: and it highlights his isolation.
Dava: Yeah.
Cait: Uh huh.
Jonathan: He is a member of the family but he is not a member of the family.
Dava: But he is not.
Jonathan: Yeah, that's true.
Cait: But he has come back to educate everybody, the family.
Rochelle: Which brings it back to Tom Hardin he's finally going to teach his father something.
Cait: Right.
Rochelle: And its the hardest lesson of all. We can't even have conversation he brings coffee and they don't talk and he leaves. Uh then he brings coffee and they don't talk and he leaves. And I thought my God he is going to die before they have this lesson. This conversation.
Bill: I think the way that he got out on the porch with the nephews was interesting I mean it was almost like uh another scene with Rose Ella too. They did this silently.
Everyone: Uh huh.
Bill: Uh he went back I think he went to bed before he decided to get up.
Rochelle: Yes.
Bill: And reveal his story. Rose Ella did all of that kind of putting together remember when uh Raphael asked her about why she cried in the kitchen when when he was just a small boy and she couldn't put it all together but then she went back and uh her sort of dreamy state put it all together remembered it was a it was a monk who had brought her some flowers. Well let me jump in here I once again and continue ask you quickly what do you think about the title where did it come from what's it mean to you?
Dava: (laughs)
Dava: Well I thought about this earlier and I think Scissors, Paper, Rockof course its a game where scissors it can either but the paper or be crushed by the rock I think this shows how a person can be given a quality or a burden or a blessing and in some in some cases its going to be something to benefit them and in some cases its going to work against them you can't always win with anything you get. Especially with these characters.
Rochelle: Well I'm glad you said that because I didn't get it. I wasn't quite sure what the title meant.
Cait: My impression was fairly simple I just remembered the game its a very simple game of odds and because that particular chapter where you know he and Nick Handy get together and there is some discussion about AIDS and I got the impression that its about that its basically a game of odds and you play and you play and you play until you lose and then and that's the nature of AIDS...
Bill: But also a game of
Cait: the disease.
Bill: Yeah, well that's the I think you can read a whole lot of things into it I mean its also a game of sort of nervous anticipation. Uh even though its a quick game and it happens uh uh rather fast when you are playing it there is always that as someone said that that moment when you are trying to anticipate what its going to be so you can sort of out guess the person that you are playing this with.
Cait: Huh.
Bill: And maybe all of these things can be read into uh uh that's not my original thought by the way that came from another person I discussed the book with. But I thought that was kind of neat.
Rochelle: That is interesting.
Cait: Oh, uh huh.
Bill: You know the other thing too is that the other chapters are children's some of them are other children's games did you put that together. All Fall Down.
Cait: Uh huh.
Rochelle: No I didn't until you said it just then.
Cait: Right.
Bill: Cowboys could be when.
Everyone: Playing cowboys and Indians.
Cait: What's guilt?
  (everyone laughs)
Rochelle: I don't remember that game.
Cait: I don't remember that game either.
Bill: That that's an adult game.
  (everyone laughs)
Rochelle: The things will always be.
Jonathon: Could I just bring you back to something you said there you said that if Scissors, Paper, Rockis referring to the idea that everybody is a loser or with AIDS you are a loser and so on.
Cait: Oh, no that's not what I meant.
Jonathan: Well, but the novel finally is about a lot of people dying.
Cait: Um
Jonathan: You know. I mean Tom Hardin dies of cancer, uh Ms. Camilla is about to die, the mother Rose Ella dies, Raphael dies of AIDS, but finally I mean is there you remember we talked in the Memory of Old Jackabout how Jack died and much of his world died but something is going to live on. The farm is going to be passed on.
Cait: Uh huh.
Jonathan: The farm is going to be passed on to somebody else. To his grandchildren. What happens here, is I mean does that.
  Narrator: Hey, booklovers join us for a live on-line chat with author Fenton Johnson Wednesday night, June 9 at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time. Just point your browser to KET.org and be sure to read on for July's bookclub@ket with Midnight Magicby Bobbie Ann Mason. Remember you can join the club any time. The address is KET.org an affiliate of KET.com.
Rochelle: All of the children and children's children of this family will have those same memories of white weddings that never took place and couples who loved each other but who really didn't they they'll have this sort of fairy tale history that they can hold on to and I think every family deserves to have a little bit of that.
Bill: I agree.
Cait: Uh huh.
Bill: I agree, I think it is about memories.
Jonathan: Well there is a quotation that refers to that actually uh what this is at the end when Camilla is thinking about how she threw away those photographs which were sort of moments which told it like it was that it really...

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