IT IS a question whether the nose or the feet are the quicker to accustom themselves to the Canadian woods in midsummer. For the first three days the feet are so touchy that they preoccupy the mind; the trail along the river is full of granite stubs, of tree roots.
As one walks the nose conveys its impressions to the attic of the mind, to the half-forgotten memories of our youth. The olfactory sense is evocative, and a familiar smell conjures up instantaneously an earlier occasion when it suffused us. Along one level, marshy stretch — now dry, for the river is low — George, our head guide, had scythed the trail clear, and the scent of the warm, sweet grass sent me back as a child to Ossining, where I once got lost in a half-cut hayfield higher than my head. So, too, the trail after an early morning rain is redolent with leaf mold and the breath of the wet trees, and the nose tells us this is too much like autumn and the closing of summer’s hope. Returning for lunch under the blazing sun, we pause on the ridge for a drink of the icecold spring, and the brown rustiness of the cup adds its odor to the taste; then we begin the long descent, where the down foot must be accurate, and as we steady ourselves against the spruce the gum smears on our fingers; instinctively we lick at it, and the aromatic flavor fills the mouth. Now at last we are approaching the clearing, and the smell of the sun-baked pine needles rises as if we had crushed it out with our feet. All this is familiar.
What is not are the new scents which are elusive and must be guessed at. There is one moss-covered, moundy stretch, carpeted by tiny, pink twin flowers, and these in turn are banked by the white blossoms of the bunchberry; this is the most fragrant spot in the entire trail, though whether the sweetness is drawn from the moss or the proximity of the three it is hard to say. As I climb the ridge to Caribou Pool, to reach the high point where the guide can spot the fish, some forty feet above the dark, deep water, the air seems especially charged by the conifers, the smell partly balsam, partly to be traced to the old fallen spruces which have been rotting for decades. And whence the wild perfume, sweet as an attar, that drifts into our cabin window at night? I suspect the meadow rue but am not sure.
Unelusive, strong, and the same here as in Ireland, England, or Norway is the odor of the traveler we have come to meet, Salar the salmon; his musky emanation clings to fish nets and clothing, is heavy in the snow house, our ice chest, and heavier in the smokehouse, where the grilse — cleaned, split, and hanging in tawny rows — are being cured by George for the winter Martini.
Never is it possible to predict what our reception will be: one year it will be rainy and wet with heavy water and the big Green Highlanders and Durham Rangers the only taking flies —of which the supply is soon short. This year the river is full of fish, both the adult fish and the freshmen, the grilse of three or four pounds; the water is low and warm and, when at 3 P.M. the thermometer rises to 90 degrees, you could cook an egg in almost any pool. Heat takes the fight out of the mature salmon, making him depressed or, as Howard, our guide, puts it, “dilatory.” He holds in the fast water, head down in the rocky crevices, and the grilse, most of whom are males, lie beside or in phalanx above their elders, whose longer form and great broad tail can be seen through the shifting panes of the swift river. In the bright hot afternoons the family groups drop back from the deep water into the shallows that are shaded and onto ledges just over or just under the falls and at the mouths of the inflowing cold springs. It is tantalizing to mark their greenish, ghostly shapes underwater, disclosed by the ever-waving tail; to see at twilight their size as they heave up to the surface and then submerge; and to know that there is nothing whatever we can do to attract them.
In such case we take solace in Kathleen’s cooking, in the savor of her fresh-baked bread and ginger cookies, in the soups, for which she alone has the secret, in the tender lamb, raised out in the settlement, brought in by the jeep to the snow house for our coming. Kathleen is George’s wife, redheaded, high-spirited, indispensable. “Growl I may, but go I must,” she says as she leaves the bench overlooking the camp pool to face her hot range in the broiling kitchen, and the words hold a grin for us who are disconsolate.
MUSIC OF UNCONSCIOUS FLOW
GARSON KANIN, the author of Born Yesterday and the director of The Diary of Anne Frank, played a saxophone in jazz bands before he discovered or was discovered by Sam Goldwyn, and in his first novel, BLOW UP A STORM (Random House, $3.95), he returns to the music of his youth and to the special circumstances in which a new talented combination, led by Lee (“Woody”) Woodruff, makes its pitch in Manhattan in 1933. The combo begins as a trio and gradually fills out to seven, white and colored, with the Negroes predominant. Woody with his trumpet, Slug the drummer, and Albie Salmon at the piano are the stars; the others embroider and fill in. The arranger and saxophonist explains what is going on, and, like Woody, he is nineteen when the story begins. I find this an exceptional novel both in its story and in its power to elucidate “this music of unconscious flow” — how it works in communication, as one of the characters puts it, and what is inside, for which word language is not enough. But Mr. Kanin has the words.
The novel opens with the discovery of the players and the recognition of their singular abilities; then come the blending and fusion of the group, with their early success as a band and on records. Inevitably tension appears: Woody is a punishing leader, and the antipathy, latent from the start, between Slug and himself reaches its climax in Slug’s collapse and fall from the stand. Despite their remorse and the care they give the stricken giant, the band can never be itself again, and the reasons for this tragedy and whether it was inevitable are what the little saxophonist gropes to articulate in the latter half of the book.
The novelist is working on three levels: first, in his personification of the meaning and genius of jazz; below this the relationship between white and Negro; and still deeper, the passionate attraction or repulsion between men and women. I should rate Mr. Kanin’s success in that order. His exposition of the creativity of jazz is the most brilliant I have read anywhere, and his best expositors are the narrator and the young Frenchwoman, Edmonde Roussel, wealthy enough to indulge her hunger for jazz and those who make it. As they walk round and round Jericho, the walls tumble down. In his handling of race relations Mr. Kanin is firm in sympathy, alert in antagonism; though Woody’s persecution of Slug I find a shade melodramatic.
There are times when the talk runs too long, as in the reefer scene, which is artistically an intrusion and exhausting to the interest. Truer and more memorable are scenes like the walk uptown, ending in the Harlem riot, big Slug so pitiable in the hospital, the lovely intimacy between the narrator and his wife, and the tough cross-questioning by the doctors and the detectives — all this coming to us in the teasing, protective idiom of the protagonist. This is a story which is alive and sensitive, and such as only America could produce.
HARRY GOLDEN, editor of the Carolina Israelite, lecturer, and author of Only in America, began life on the top floor of a cold-water tenement on the East Side of New York. Somewhere between the two extremes he found a way of saying sage, shrewd things in a clear and sympathetic style. As a humorist he is in the tradition of Will Rogers and Finley Peter Dunne. The wilder flights of Mark Twain’s exaggeration are not for him.
What distinguishes the short papers in his new book, FOR 2ɇ PLAIN (World, $4.00), is his humbleness, his alertness to the changes taking place in this ever-changing country, and his humor, which has in it either a note of compassion or the flash of indignation. He attributes the decline of American humor to those “ waiting for vaudeville to come back so they can tell racial, ethnic, and rural jokes” and adds that “you can no longer tell a dialect joke, for instance, when the fellow is actually sending his daughter to Wellesley.” This limitation, however, does not prevent Mr. Golden from being amusing in a tender, nostalgic way about his childhood in Manhattan and his Jewishness.
Politicians like Jimmy Walker, novelists like Ellen Glasgow, lawyers like Clarence Darrow, Golden’s favorite movie queens, Claudette Colbert and Joan Crawford, are reviewed with the same genuineness as his unfunny scrutiny of segregation. The book is best for reading aloud in snatches, and the tendency to quote him is irresistible. Speaking of the Russian claim to the discovery of the North Pole, he says: “The important thing is not who reached it but who’s going to figure out how to farm it.”