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Review: Landscape with Traveler
June 30, 2014

Landscape with Traveler: The Pillow Book of Francis Reeves
Barry Gifford

Barry Gifford, most well-known for his Sailor and Lulu novels (of which Wild at Heart was made into a film by David Lynch starring Nichols Cage and Laura Dern), initially published Landscape with Traveler in 1980. Being the reminiscences of a gay man, some explicitly sexual, the novel's publication by a mainstream press was ahead of its time. Or as Gifford alludes to in an author's note, perhaps it was the rest of the world that was behind. Recently republished by Seven Stories Press (New York), the novel still resonates today.

Francis Reeves was born in Louisiana, served in the Navy, worked at various odd jobs, and now lives in New York City. At the age of nearly fifty, the age when many take stock of their lives, he finds the need to tell his story. There is a need to tell, yes, but there is no burning desire, nor is there any great epiphany or defining moment. As in most lives there are a few memorable events that determine one's fate, events that create a connect-the-dots image of that fate.

Told in short vignettes, Reeves's events and relationships include first encounters of sexual awareness (one concerning a cow), getting caught up in an armed robbery of a bank, his unremarkable years at college, the hijinks of young Navy recruits, a brief marriage, and the time he worked in a bookstore. His thoughts about his main romantic relationship, Jim, a married man with children, occupy much of the second half of the novel. Most telling of his fate, perhaps, is this passage:

I smoke a pack a day, drink socially, eat junk food (usually) for my one daily meal, drink fifteen to twenty cups of coffee a day, go to bed too late, and feel fine, though I catch colds with the greatest of ease. When I was in college, nineteen or twenty, I was taken to a fortuneteller of high repute, an ancient black lady who lived in a little dark cabin deep in the woods. ... There was the hiss of silence about her. She looked at me for a long time and said quickly: "Happiness till fifty-five. Then death from your lungs. Not much money. Not much love. Enough."

The 'pillow book' in the subtitle refers to The Pillow Book, the diary of Sei Shōnagon during her time as court lady to the Japanese empress consort and published around the year 1000 AD. As defined in Wikipedia: "a pillow book is a collection of notebooks or notes which have been collated to show a period of someone or something's life. In Japan such kind of idle notes are generally referred to the zuihitsu genre." Landscape with Traveler is a contemporary version of this genre, and other Asian influences are evident:

I love Japanese and Chinese landscapes, like those reproduced in Arakawa's Zen Painting?especially those with tiny solitary travelers barely discernable scaling a mountain path or crossing a fragile footbridge. Looking at them, I become the traveler, far from the "real" world, hiking along a winding stream or sitting in a hidden eyrie. Jim's lovely poem, Reading in the Study in the Bamboo Grove (after that painting), is a perfect commentary on my vision:

Lonely for conversation,
the scholar in the mountain hut
goes on reading.

Gifford, in the book's introduction, tells us Francis Reeves and his story is based on Gifford's correspondences and eventual meetings with his friend Marshall Clements. Gifford (self-described as "straight") felt Clements's story would make a great autobiography. Clements disagreed, but the idea of a novel caught on. At the time of publication, it caused a stir because of the homosexuality, yet, there is no hint of an agenda. There is no discussion of gays in the military, same-sex marriage, or the Stonewall riots, but sometimes the best protests are the quiet, intimate stories of individuals. In the end, the novel is about a man who is greater than the sum of his life's events and thoughts, and is well worth reading in any context.

COMMENTS

Number of comments: 1
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Jo Reed
Nice review, I remember reading this many years (decades?) ago. I'll have to re-read now!

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