The blurb at the back of Fup, a novella by Jim Dodge, says: "Fup is a contemporary fable that inspires an almost evangelical fervour in all those who read it." I've read it – it was one of my Xmas presents – and I'm still waiting for that "evangelical fervour" to hit me. I guess I've missed the boat. It's not that I didn't like the book because I did like the book – I liked it a lot and I'll tell you about it if you'll give me a minute – but I'm not a fervid individual at the best of times so maybe it's simply me. Let's say for the moment that it's simply me.
As regular readers of this blog will know I am fond of short novels, the shorter the better, so it surprises me that I've had this book in my hand (which weighs in at a mere 121 pages of not-small print) and not bought it, especially since one of the times it was in Fopp and I think all they were asking was three quid for the thing. This I cannot explain. I know that each time I looked at the cover, did not read any of the blurb, returned it from whence I had retrieved it and moved on. Most unlike me. So, it's a miracle that having received the book as a present I didn't stick it at the very bottom of my to-get-around-to-sometime-in-this-lifetime pile. I guess I reckoned if the universe kept shoving this book in my face then maybe it wanted me to read it, and I did.
There are three protagonists in the book: Granddaddy Jake Santee who is 99 years old, five times married, an unreformed gambler, a cranky reprobate and fierce opponent of the work ethic who, for some reason, is under the delusion that he is immortal; Tiny, who is anything but and who was adopted by his grandfather when he was four, is a quiet, unprepossessing (size excepted) man with more than a fondness for building fences, lots of fences. And there is Fup – "Fup Duck. Ya get it? Fup … Duck." – an overweight mallard with a fondness for Granddaddy Jake's homebrewed Ol' Death Whisper, food of all kinds and movies of a romantic nature, "whether light and witty or murderously tragic." The villain of the piece is a huge wild boar called Lockjaw.
These are simple folk who live on a ranch in the coastal hills of Northern California. Apart from the discovery of Fup as a duckling their lives have become uneventful. Both have had enough of events in the past. Granddaddy Jake's life has been the more colourful. At the age of sixteen (circa 1894) "he set out forty years behind everybody else for the gold rush in California." He is moderately successful and amasses sufficient to comfortably last him for the rest of his life, if he was judicious.
For the next two years he travelled California on horseback. He was not judicious. Three marriages – the longest lasting seven weeks – seriously dented his bankroll. Gambling covered his drinking but the drinking gave him crazy visions. Always one to follow the inner light, Jake invested lavish amounts in highly speculative ventures, learning the hard way that sometimes when you put your money where your mouth is, it's only to kiss it goodbye.
Tiny's life was really only marked by one event prior to his making the acquaintance of his grandfather and that was the death of his mother. His father, a pilot, had been killed in a freak accident when the wing of his X-77 jet fighter "tore off [his] plane at 800 miles an hour over the Mojave Desert" two month before he was born.
Fup's life was also only marked by a single event which immediately preceded his first encounter with Tiny. Tiny goes out one day "eager to finish digging the last 100 holes" when he finds that Lockjaw has been at them, the neat pile of earth beside each posthole "had been trampled, scattered, and generally ravaged." However he notices that one of the holes near the end has been the object of some "focused destruction." On investigation, "[n]ear the bottom, half buried and three-quarters drowned, he found a newly-hatched duckling, its feathers matted into a ball of muddy goo." He takes it home and with a judicious squirt of Ol' Death Whisper – administered with "the dropper off a bottle of Vick's nosedrops" – the bird is saved and shortly thereafter named.
It takes a delicate touch to cover a century's worth of living in 121 pages which Dodge does. It is a remarkably laid back little book in that it feels neither rushed nor so crammed full of details there's no room for the story. Granted there's not much of a story but then most fables don't have much of a story to them and their characters are usually a bit two-dimensional. And in some respects both Granddaddy Jake and Tiny are two-dimensional but they are drawn with such precision that the lack of depth seems not to matter; these are not deep people.
One of my favourite scenes in the book involves a minor character called Johnny Seven Moons, "an old Pomo that wandered the coastal hills without an apparent home or source of income." One day the man turns up "asking if he might do a chore or two in exchange for something to drink, preferably whiskey." At this point I should interject that Jake's whiskey was powerful stuff that probably had more in common with paint-stripper than whiskey. Here's how things progressed:
They sat on the porch and drank whiskey for two days and well into late evening of a third. Granddaddy Jake found him to be an excellent companion, for in that time Johnny Seven Moons didn't utter a word – just sat sipping from his jar, gazing at the day, the night, calmly and extremely still.
On the third evening he took a deep breath and turned to Jake: 'Let me tell you about my name, Seven Moons. I added the Johnny when the white man came because I thought it sounded young and sexy, but it didn't seem to do much good. I think it's bad now to just make up names, but I keep it to remind me that you must live with your mistakes. I earned my name Seven Moons when I trained as a doctor. I went away alone to find my name in a vision. I wandered and sought without food for three days, a week. Nothing happened. On the seventh day, as the sun touched the sea, I came across a group of maidens from another village out on a foraging trip for reeds and berries. […] I joined them and we feasted. And that night, as the full moon travelled the heavens, I made love with every one of them, and with each I felt the full moon burning in my body, a great pearly light exploding inside my head. Seven Maidens. Seven Moons.' He paused, smiling in the dusk. 'Your whiskey … four moons, maybe five.'
Okay, up till this point you may be wondering what there is in this book that might inspire "evangelical fervour" in anyone. Well, up till this point I've only talked about the first three-quarters of the book. It's in the final chapter (actually there are only four) that Lockjaw comes into his own. Before that we're aware of him, we know that he killed Boss (Tiny's dog) and that Tiny has been taking part in the regular Sunday morning pig hunt ever since. During these hunts he's now accompanied by his faithful pig-duck seeing that he no longer has his faithful pig-dog.
And I expect most of you are ahead of me now in realising that in the final chapter we have the climatic confrontation between Tiny and Lockjaw. It is the nature of that confrontation and the subsequent dénouement that will take you unawares as it certainly did me.
And I can't talk about it.
Remember The Sixth Sense, The Crying Game and the original Planet of the Apes? In each there was a major revelation that you really didn't want to know about before you saw the film and yet were desperate to share afterwards. Fup is like that. The first 106½ pages are fine and I unreservedly recommend them to you. And some people will even more highly recommend the following pages and with an "evangelical fervour" I have no doubt. I can say that I certainly read the remaining pages more than once and with much more care than I read the preceding pages and I was certainly motivated to go back to the start to see if there were any clues that I had missed.
The full title of Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist is The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream. It leaves you in no doubt. Fup, however, is only called, Fup, not Fup: A Fable. It's the reviewers that call it a fable. The Glasgow Herald called it a "very funny, profoundly silly, oddly profound Zen-punk, California-backwards moral fable;" the Independent on Sunday said it was a "witty and spirited modern allegory;" Scotland on Sunday opted for "a hilarious, scurrilous parable" whereas that once venerable institution The Times cut to the chase: "This novel is fupped uck."
I, of course, have my own idea about what the book is. As for whether it's a fable, a parable, an allegory, an apologue (my personal choice) or an overgrown anecdote I'm not too sure; there are arguments for and against all of 'em and so I won't burden you with a list of them.
The reason I veer towards the apologue is because a fable usually leaves you with its moral as a punch line whereas an apologue, according to Wikipedia, is "a pleasant vehicle for a moral doctrine or to convey a useful lesson without stating it explicitly." In place of a moral this is what we get from Granddaddy Jake:
It just ain't possible to explain some things, maybe even most things. It's interesting to wonder on them and do some speculation, but the main thing is you have to accept it – take it for what it is, and get on with your getting.
An interviewer read that last quote to Dodge and asked him: [D]oes wisdom spring up like weeds through the paving stones of your narrative? To which he replied:
I would never claim wisdom for my work, conscious or otherwise, partly because I'm not sure I'd recognize wisdom if it latched on my ass. Wisdom, it seems to me, entails not only knowing what and why, but, just as important, when and how to move understanding into action. I assure you I'm as confounded as most people I know, and if you find wisdom in my work, you do so at your own risk. – Bookmunch
I'm sure the book’s lack of explicitness is what will divide people. At the very least it will encourage friendly debate. I can't imagine anyone hating the book although there will probably be some and there will be others, indeed there are, who will develop an "almost evangelical fervour" for the thing. I wasn't one but you would do well to make up your own mind. As for me, I'm going to get on with my getting, that's what I'm going to do.
Dodge was born in 1945 and grew up as an Air Force brat. As an adult he spent many years living on an almost self-sufficient commune in West Sonoma County, California. He has had many jobs including apple picker, a carpet layer, a teacher, a professional gambler, a shepherd, a woodcutter and an environmental restorer. He received his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing/Poetry from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop in 1969. He has been the director of the Creative Writing program in the English Department at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California since 1995. He has published three novels, Fup, Not Fade Away and Stone Junction and a collection of poetry and prose, Rain on the River. He now lives in the Klamath Mountains with his wife and son.