Diary: (1) Geoffrey O‘Brien, Arabian Nights of 1934
Illustration from Arabian Nights 1934. Strand Theater, Lansing, Michigan, 1941. Photographer unknown
Home was to be escaped from. Some stepped into dark theaters to watch pictures of horses riding across ridges. A lone figure on a mesa peered down across bare flatlands toward a distant blaze. He lassoed a crag and swung to the far side of the crevice. Cruel rustlers with scarves over their mouths tied people up and abandoned them in cabins. Storms knocked down trees as a lost homesteader tried to find his way out of the forest. A fragment gleamed in the creek where a grizzled miner was panning. Then came the disorderly hordes swaggering down the muddy street who in their drunkenness threw chairs through the windows of barber shops. A wheel came loose and a chuck wagon smashed against the edge of a canyon. A bandit in an immense sombrero cracked a whip. A girl in a gingham dress cowered against a wall. She had come from back east after her father sent word of his illness. And now everybody wanted to get their hands on the scrap of paper that showed where the mine entrance was. Gunshots from an unseen marksman brought down the marauders before they could have their way with her. It was a good thing she had a cowboy for a friend. Now that there was no longer anything to fear or conceal, the two of them rode away and kept on riding. Dust whirled across open spaces that went on forever. There was nothing but air and rock.
I approach the glass booth, slide the coins under the slot, take the ticket and grasp it for fear of losing or dropping it. Once the lights go down inside everything will be a surprise. Even something that looks familiar is a kind of surprise, like seeing my own home, my own town, from the outside for the first time. Mirror images of foldable Formica card tables and soda fountains. A car at a filling station, handsome young boy pumping gas. Bandstands in the park where people stroll on July afternoons. Mill workers going home. A sign outside a camp meeting in the woods—HEAVEN OR HELL?—that makes me think of Bible School last summer where I got a pin for attendance. A girl on the screen who might be me, the way I imagined a year ago I would look someday, getting ready for a prom. In the dark everything starts to slide apart. The screen is like a membrane. It lines up with my world along the edges and with a click it blurs in the middle and a passageway opens into another space. Like Alice’s looking-glass.
I don’t know where I’m going. Into what future world. I have not yet known fever jungles or narcotic fiends. Or wives who carry on with other women’s husbands. Who knows what goes on among the roughest of the mineworkers. People I was told to keep a distance from. You don’t know how thin the line is until you cross it. I never saw a gangster that I knew of. Nobody ever yet said “get wise to yourself sister” in that rasping tone that now is a voice I can tune into in my head. Or mimic almost exactly if I choose. The sandpaper tone of some traveling salesman or racket boss. So many voices. Some stammer out of pitiful shyness, some roar to prove how loud they can laugh, some tease in a naughty playful way, or sometimes not so playful, some go to pieces from feeling more than they can stand.
In the dark, in the beginning, it’s better to clear all that out. Start blank. If you really want to watch you have to surrender from the start. Don’t be distracted by thoughts. But just when the surrender is complete, when it’s too late, I remember that bad things can happen in this dark. It has happened before. They took me to see the Phantom and afterward I wished I could have closed my eyes and never seen that face. How many years it took to rub it out. Not rub it out even, I know perfectly well it is there under the layers I piled on it. How long it took to learn, at first by failing again and again and finding myself frightened beyond any reason, not to go near the place inside me where he is hidden. A person can be lured into a terrible place. It has been the fate of lost girls and innocent children. There is only one terrible place. Sometimes it looks like a cage crawling with snakes, sometimes like an underground corridor stalked by a hooded intruder, sometimes an alley where a child loses her way and will never be allowed to go home. Erased as if she never had been. I don’t want to be dragged back into my own shadow. This is what it is to be nowhere at all and not able to get out. Daddy’s sister tried to kill Mother with a knife. They took her to a hospital with great stone walls where she was never allowed to walk outside again. I was taken to see her in her room there and that became another hidden face.
Things happen that don’t fit into the world. Nothing is more upsetting than what occurs in the most ordinary places, the places where those who live there say that nothing ever happens. In schoolyards or attics or garages, in the middle of town at odd hours, little acts of cruelty and craziness are taking place all the time. Boys torment kittens in barns. They will spoil the world if you let them. The tiniest unexpected meanness makes the sky heavy. The look of someone who somehow doesn’t want you to be there. There is an embarrassment in being hurt. A disappointment suspended where no one can reach. Leave it behind.
Stay tuned for Part Two!
Geoffrey O’Brien is the other of many and varied works of nonfiction, including Sonata for Jukebox: An Autobiography of My Ears, The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the Twentieth Century, Stolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows: Writing on Film, Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir, and nine books of poetry. He was for many years editor in chief of The Library of America and his edition of crime novels of the 1960s will appear under their aegis later this year. He recently completed the nineteenth update of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. He has written for Book Post about Raymond Queneau, Marvin Gaye, and Paris bookstores. This diary is adapted from his new book, Arabian Nights of 1934, out this spring, described by its publisher as “a genre-bending novel of 1001 nights of no-holds-barred, pre-code American movies distilled into a single fevered dreamworld.” It is available now for pre-order from publisher Terra Nova Press at a 20 percent discount.
Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing snack-sized book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to our paying subscribers’ in-boxes, as well as free posts like this one from time to time to those who follow us. We aspire to grow a shared reading life in a divided world.
Become a paying subscriber—or give Book Post as a gift!—to support our work and receive straight-to-you book posts by distinguished and engaging writers. Subscriber-only book posts are on the way from Isabella Tree, Àlvaro Enrigue, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Peter Brooks, more!
We partner with booksellers to link to their books and support their work, and bring you news of local book life as it happens across the land. Book Post receives a small commission when you buy a book from Tertulia through one of our posts.
If you liked this piece, please share and tell the author with a “like”