Mimes, in the form of God on high,
Mutter and mumble low,
And hither and thither fly —
Mere puppets they, who come and go
[. . .]
But see, amid the mimic rout
A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
The scenic solitude!
It writhes! — it writhes! — with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food,
And the angels sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.
— "The Conqueror Worm," Edgar Allan Poe
Like a vision out of Poe or Goya, Russell H. Greenan's A Can of Worms (New York: Bantam, 1987) wriggles into view. Puppets of greed, marionettes with limited views, the comic, the psychotic, the cheaters and the cheated, the unfortunately fated, the dying mistaken for the dead. Greenan's last novel to be published in English with a major publisher, came and went without a glimpse from the literary or critical establishments, but then they've often been poor gatekeepers. Still, Greenan has had his supporters over the years. "There is something wrong with a world in which Russell Greenan is not a household name," Michele Slung began her review of A Can of Worms in the Washington Post Book World, and added that "A Can of Worms is about as good as he gets: I'd almost go so far as to call it a small masterpiece" ("Murder Most Mordant," August 10, 1987). Now that Greenan's first novel, It Happened in Boston? (1968) has received reassessments from writers as various as Anne Tyler, Jonathan Lethem, and David L. Ulin, and been reissued by Random House as a Modern Library 20th Century Rediscovery, perhaps we can now turn our attention to other works by this master of dark comedy.
A Can of Worms is, among others things, a marvel of formal control. No single character serves to center the novel, only a chain of circumstances that sprout from the death of Ludy Gilman, a night clerk at "the Montevideo Motel on Route 3A outside Nashua, New Hampshire," who collapses from a coronary thrombosis while telling a sex joke to two maids. The maids "at first thought he was just kidding around. Ludy liked nothing better than a little slapstick-pratfall comedy" (1). The events that reverberate from this pratfall into death form the novel's squirming plot. The plot really is a can of worms, in all its reflexive and thematic referentiality and fleshy reality. Above all, the conceit allows us to experience A Can of Worms as a poem, a sorrowful, macabre collage framed by two scenes at the Montevideo Motel.
Within this frame A Can of Worms describes a Boston littered with various drunks, in particular a wino named Whitey Frainer; a corrupt Boston politician, Phil Delaunay; his psychotically sexed sister Melissa (Missy); her sadistic sometimes lover and hitman-for-hire Stanley Gloag; a lawyer who is also an extortionist, Ludy Gilman's brother Harold; a dumb but loyal Irish cop, Kevin Reedy, who has violent reveries and is in Delaunay's pocket; another cop, Frankie Gates, in love with Harold Gilman's rich realtor wife Magda; petty thieves like Ossie Peña, a dope-smoking attendant at Suds for Duds; a black pimp, Scipio Africanus; a blackmailing private eye, Fritz Pomerantz. Add a couple of severed heads and Boston's racism, as well as assorted sins and crimes, such as adultery, murder, and incest, and you have the mix that makes for A Can of Worms. Phil Delaunay puts it like this: "Instead of concentrating on rustling up support for the nomination, I'm dithering around with a personal problem. My head is crammed with garbage — extortion demands, secret payoffs, criminals, dead bodies, police investigations" (126). Garbage and dead bodies, as we all know, breed lots of worms.
Greenan's plot is an elaborate weave of mostly malign purposes, missed connections, dead souls — all made palpable with sensual and symbolic specificity. Take any strand, pull on it, the Peña plot thread, for example, and everything squirms. One night Ossie Peña looks out of the barred window at the back of the Suds for Duds laundromat and sees in the parking lot a man and woman in a new Audi talking and then the woman shooting the man. "[L]ike a magician performing a bit of hocus-pocus, she brought forth a small gun, pointed it at the man's chest, and shot him. Two infinitesimal tongues of flame licked the weapon's muzzle, while the double recoil sent a tremor up her extended arm" (38). Peña, after the woman leaves, will steal the stereo from the Audi and refuse to help the man who is still alive. Without his knowing it, he has witnessed Missy's attempted murder of her blackmailer Harold Gilman, who had found in a trunk a batch of overhead shots taken by his late brother of couples in bed at the Montevideo Motel. Peña's theft will end up getting him killed by the cop loyal to the Delaunay family, Kevin Reedy. Gilman's disappearance will lead Magda Gilman to hire a private detective Fritz Pomerantz who will be killed by Missy's hitman companion Stanley Gloag after Fritz has been ripped off by the pimp Scipio Africanus in their scheme to blackmail Missy. Gloag will be killed by Magda's lover, Boston detective Frankie Gates, when Gloag tries to eliminate Magda Gilman, whom Missy mistakenly thinks is behind the blackmail. Gates will be too late to save Magda from Kevin Reedy, who (too late) will learn that the photos contain not only pictures of his friend Phil Delaunay and Missy in bed together, but also Reedy's love Rita, dead in a traffic accident after her final tryst with Delaunay.
How tightly packed are the worms in Greenan's plot. But what would the container be without a texture to fill it? Again, consider the minor figure of Ossie Peña and his surrounds, as Greenan introduces them in Chapter 7 (of 44):
Shortly before twelve that same night the last customer, a demented old man in a red-checked hat with elephantine earflaps, left the Suds for Duds Laundromat carrying his well-worn clothing, still hot from the dryer, in a wrinkled plastic garbage bag.
"Every day we get more and more of those deinstitutionalized characters in this dump," Ossie Peña soliloquized, watching him shamble down the street.
Then the attendant locked and bolted the front door, rolled all the hampers beneath the long Formica tables, switched off the lights, and went back through the shadows to the cubbyhole that served as an office. From around his scrawny neck he took the earphones of his Walkman WM-7 and adjusted them to his head, after which he splashed another generous dose of Bardolino into the chipped teacup, recapped the half-gallon jug, and lit up a porra. (35)
Perhaps one can hear in "a wrinkled plastic garbage bag," "dump," "cubbyhole," and "scrawny neck" the distant melody of worms, as one can in this youth's "curly black hair" (more on the use of hair to suggest worms in a moment), but a louder echo awaits us when we recall the "still hot from the dryer" as we read a hundred pages later of Reedy's putting Peña in one of the laundromat's dryers and leaving him there until he's dead. "Get the fuck in there, you maggot," Reedy tells Peña before tossing him into the dryer. "The shape of the drum forced him into a fetal position" (141). Thus begins the two-page long birth of Ossie Peña's death. Surprised that "the little hump" is dead, Reedy lifts "one of Peña's eyelids" to make sure. "What he saw shocked him. The pupil was hardly bigger than a pinhead, while all the rest of the eye had turned an ocherous brown. The whole orb had shrunk and shriveled, so that it now appeared grotesquely small for its socket" (144). Such Grand Guignol descriptions are part of this master's repertoire, where the specificity of detail and sound — e.g, the o, r, and k sounds in ocherous brown / whole orb / shrunk / grotesquely / socket sequence above — impresses the scene's horror upon our consciousness, while at the same time imbedding deeper the novel's darker themes, made none the lighter, of course, by scene's aesthetic properties.
The Walkman Peña adjusts to his head when we first meet him (Peña is a John Coltrane fan) also has a physical and symbolic role to play in the life and death of this minor character. Affected by the sight of the apparently dead Gilman in the Audi, Peña crosses himself before going to work. But when he tries to lift Gilman's wrist watch, Gilman clutches him. Peña "with a jerk liberated his hand from the macabre grip. Through the open door he backed, but to his horror something grabbed him by the nape of the neck and prevented his retreat. He let out a yelp and wriggled like a belly dancer [. . .]. The Walkman wire had tangled itself around the car's shift, and it was the metal band of his headphones that had clutched him by the throat" (40). The Walkman as a lifeline, a conscience-line, trying to hold him back from a crime far worse than theft. "'Aagh! The guy's still alive,' he wailed, his hundred-pound body shaking convulsively. 'Por Dios! He ain't dead. Holy shit! Did he see my face? Hombre, I got to get the hell out of here.'" (41) Only to be tumbled and "roasted alive" (141) later in the "sulfurous glow" of the laundromat for his sin, although he "finger[ed] the black wire of his Walkman as though he were telling the beads of a rosary" (139).
Above all the novel's texture is established, as is almost everything in this vermiculate tale, by the image of worms — worms directly referenced, alluded to, loomed into verbs, metaphors, symbols, a Weltanschauung, a controlling conceit. The title Greenan places in the mouth of Melissa Delaunay's psychotic equal, Stanley Gloag: "Well, it's interesting — this blackmailing business. Better handle it right, or you'll be opening a can of worms" (35). And out of this can Greenan's characters avariciously crawl. "Everybody's into moral turpitude, these days" (7), thinks Harold Gilman when he looks at his brother's candid overhead shots of a "cast of characters [. . .] old and ugly or fat and homely — much more comic than sexy" (6) and comes across Phil Delaunay and his sister Missy "going at it like a couple of alley cats. The dirty bastards" (7). Human bodies, naked or not, root and wriggle throughout the novel. Listening to Magda Gilman tell of how her college friend, the politically empowered Missy Delaunay, took Magda's first husband from her, Frankie Gates is reminded of "a gruff pronouncement his Uncle Dinny had once delivered when he'd heard of an unmarried girl's pregnancy. 'They will fuck,' the old donkey had muttered sagely. Sensing that this was the wrong occasion for telling such an anecdote, the reclining detective kept silent" (26).
Reedy recalls Missy as a teenager when she "just kept on rubbing her ass or her pointy little tits on any healthy looking male who happened to visit the house," no matter the number of psychiatrists her politico dad, Sunny Ned Delaunay, sent her to. "Memories of those days stirred in Reedy's mind like maggots" (46). Crashing for a night after trying to protect Phil and Missy, Reedy dreams of Rita. "But just as he was about to caress the alluring woman, something hot and moist wriggled into his ear" — Missy's tongue. "Giggling, the woman slithered off his body" (63). Sick with a cold after killing and decapitating Harold Gilman, Reedy lies in bed, "his hands [. . .] wriggling on the counterpane" (82). Magda, unable to give Frankie Gates a straight answer to his marriage proposal, "wriggled in the chair, and the green silk of her loose gown rippled sinuously" (182). Driving Magda to his property under construction near the Fens (a gift from Phil Delaunay) and to her death, Reedy "skillfully wormed his way through to Boylston Street" (198). Fighting Frankie Gates after killing and decapitating Magda, Reedy "wriggled loose" (206). Ossie Peña, who "wriggled like a belly dancer," also is shown "wriggling" into his jeans (92) and heard swearing "devoutly as he wiggled his tiny foot into a wing-tipped loafer that had a two-inch stacked heel" (95). Ludy's hair is wavy, Peña's curly, Melissa's ropy. "[A] sudden gust of wind wrapped spirals of yellow hair around her pouting mouth" (112).
Worms, maggots, creatures that live underground or off the dead. Phil Delaunay tells his loyal but dumb Irish cop and boyhood friend Kevin Reedy, "The whole wretched business is turning into a rat's nest" (125). For Magda, thinking about her avaricious relatives eager to inherit her fortune, "Human beings are vultures" (145). "Ain't no shortage of men in the world," says Scipio's prostitute Rubyjewel. "Why, you keep running into them everyplace you go — like cockroaches" (97).
The apotheosis of the worm conceit occurs when Frankie Gates is called to the apartment of Lily Spritzer who has reported that the bums fighting in her alley ("the whole assembly collapsed on the littered asphalt in a wriggling tangle of arms, heads, and legs") have broken into her house and robbed her.
Lily Spritzer thanked him for coming, showed him to the door, and returned to the window to watch the comedy.
Reaching the alley by means of the cellar exit, he found the battle proceeding at a fast and furious clip. Grunts and curses filled the air, and now and then a bleary-eyed face, unshaven and wine-red in color, would stare out from the knot of writhing bodies.
"Break it up, you fucking grease bags. This isn't the Boston Garden," the detective snarled, kicking a broad rump in dirty denim which projected from the slithering heaving huddle.
The recipient of this boot, a roly-poly vagabond, tore himself from the melee, and giving Gates a why-don't-you-mind-your-own-business glare, waddled off in the direction of the street. The other combatants paid him no heed, however, and he was obliged to kick several more backsides before the lacework of thrashing limbs finally unraveled and the scrimmage came to its inconclusive and inglorious end. (161)
From out of this "knot of writhing bodies" might have crawled a somewhat different worm, Whitey Frainer, no less a bum, but capable, almost in spite of himself, of a deed disconnected from the world's great motivators: fear and greed. It is Whitey who looks through "the gaping hole in the middle of the landing, where the renovators had ripped out the staircase to the ground floor" (52) of Reedy's house (another of Greenan's gothic structures) near the Fens and, in hopes of stealing money, looks into "a bulging plastic shopping bag" and sees "or, at least, imagined that he saw — [. . .] an elaborate Halloween mask, a rubbery horror complete with livid complexion, gore-stained lips and teeth, and jagged glistening neck wound" (54).
But though he was frightened, he was entranced as well, and continued to gaze into the dead eyes long after his brain had advised him to flee. All this vibration soon had an effect on the object he held, for the detached head, as if wishing to avoid his concentrated scrutiny, at last tumbled over on its sallow cheek. When that occurred, two amputated hands appeared beneath it in a carmine pool of blood. (54)
Reedy returns and throws the head of Harold Gilman in his burning fireplace. From his vantage point on the second floor, Whitey Frainer looks on. "An incandescent gold ring circled the head, which lay facedown on the burning paper. From the wavy hair tendrils of gray smoke seeped, and slowly meandered up the chimney." Readers of Greenan's first novel It Happened in Boston? will now have journeyed from the possibly illusory crown placed on the head of that novel's narrator, Alfred Omega, at book's end to this fiery temporal halo above the decapitated head of Harold Gilman. Then the head falls and rolls out of the fire.
Frainer winced. Where the pale jowly face had been, there was now only a coarse mat of carbonized tissue and bone — a reeking black wound, devoid of human characteristics. Nothing remained but the teeth, and these were larger than they had been in life because the lips and gums were gone. From the smoldering skull, they shone with surprising brilliance, shone in a death smile full of mockery. (55)
The "lanky wino" later will have the opportunity to tell Frankie Gates about what he saw, but Frankie won't believe him until it's too late. Frankie, misreading the woman he loves, thinks Magda may have had her husband killed. By the time Frankie makes the connection between Reedy and the house near the Fens Whitey had told him about, Reedy has already decapitated Magda. The scene is replayed this time with Frankie watching his love's head burn in the fire.
To view those so familiar features in such a setting — disembodied, surrounded by a corona of orange flame — almost made him doubt his sanity. And as he stared, even more bizarre things commenced to happen. Stirred by the fiery draft, the head's brown hair began drifting sinuously about her slightly flushed cheeks, while tiny wrinkles appeared at the corners of her mouth. Gradually the full lips parted. Between them he could see her white teeth. (203)
As Gates watches, further transformations occur to Magda's head, some of them, like the "tiny wrinkles" and sinuous hair and "tendrils of gray smoke" Whitey sees rising from Gilman's wavy hair, vermicular in shape.
The heat of the blaze, the seething fluids and gases in the roasting skull, soon induced even more grotesque physiognomic changes. The pretty eyes took on a sly and evil look, and from one of them a gout of blood dribbled like a ruby tear. Swiftly the cheerful grin became a nasty simper, and the nose wrinkled up like an angry dog's. The floating hair caught fire, and in an instant became a glaring sunburst of yellow flame. Darkening to an umber hue, the skin cracked and shriveled, while an ear turned into a bit of twisted charcoal. (203)
Like an angel from above, Whitey throws down his "bottle of Cossack," saving Gates's life. "The detective [Reedy] with the revolver sighed wearily, and at almost the same instant, something extraordinary happened. A flashing, tumbling object of indeterminate size and shape came hurtling down from the upper reaches of the room, landed on the hearthstone like a grenade, and loudly shattered into a hundred scintillating fragments. An odor of alcohol pervaded the musty air" (205). Whitey tells Frankie that he was afraid Reedy "was going to shoot you and chop off your head" (207), but he makes the point several times that the vodka bottle was "nearly full," "brand new," "almost full."
A minor character or two is left standing or reeling at the novel's bleak end, but most everyone else is dead. The Gilman brothers — dead. Reedy kills himself but not before sending the compromising photos to the Massachusetts Coalition for Progress, and Missy is off to jail for shooting Harold Gilman. Ossie Peña, Stanley Gloag, Fritz Pomerantz, Magda Gilman — all dead. Only Frankie Gates is left standing in a state of ambiguity, "a tall uncertain figure starkly outlined against the dazzling white snow, [. . .] ponder[ing] the question of his guilt or innocence" (213).
There are no charming madmen or even a protagonist in A Can of Worms, just mainly a pervasive corruption — Boston by, say, Louis-Ferdinand Céline minus the ellipses. Ludy Gilman tells his joke about a woman who, after nine husbands, wanted to marry someone pure, a virgin, and finds one from the Australian Outback, who on their wedding night pushes all the furniture against the wall. "And the guy says, 'Well, my dear, I don't know much about ladies — but if they're anything like kangaroos, we'll need all the room we can get.'" But that's his last "dirty story" ("Nobody could tell a dirty story like Ludy Gilman"). "[H]e slumped to the nylon carpeted floor like a deflated balloon and, after a few feeble twitches, lay there perfectly still" (1). Only sex and race jokes can we find in A Can of Worms. Irish cop to Armenian cop: "Hey, Aram! You ever hear that story about the cannibal butcher shop?" Armenian meat's the most expensive. Why? "And the butcher says, 'Lady, have you ever had to clean an Armenian?'" (190). Aram responds with the variation that Irish brains cost more. Why? "And the butcher says, 'Lady do you know how many Irishmen we have to kill to get a pound of brains?'" (191) One cop "with a brogue said plaintively, 'I didn't think that joke was so funny, Obie — did you?'" And the other Irish cop replies, "I thought it was in very bad taste — absolutely uncalled for. They're just not recruiting the same class of officers anymore. You can't walk into the station house these days without finding yourself ass deep in vulgarity" (191). Ass deep we, too, are at the novel's end, ass deep in a universe as darkly comic as Jim Thompson's, albeit not as scatological.
Such a vision of our species is not, of course, to every reader's liking. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, for example, noted in his New York Times review of July 25, 1987 that whereas in his earlier novels, Greenan had "always succeeded at creating morally degenerate charmers, crazies whom one could root for because the moral universe they inhabited was ambiguous enough to make the intensity of their malevolent passions winning," in A Can of Worms he "keeps backing and filling, [as] a mean-spiritedness sets in that makes one wonder whether the joke is going to be worth one's trouble." Lehmann-Haupt's response suggests his praise for Greenan's previous novels was somewhat misconceived, not realizing that to be even a degree too charmed by his homicidal characters is to be implicated in their madness. The "backing and filling" the Times reviewer noted is more likely the worm-filled dirt falling on his own grave, unless we want to deny the likes of Swift, Twain, and Nathanael West their comic visions.
Yes, the human community in this and other Greenan works is a bucket of maggots, a can of worms. So much does this conceit invade every breath and page of the novel that readers like Lehmann-Haupt may find it, as Hawthorne said of his Scarlet Letter, "impossible to throw any cheering light" upon. Each time I read A Can of Worms, however, I can't help but be grateful for its humor and portrayal of its characters' predicaments and fates, and admire the aesthetic control the novel displays in its structure, language, motifs, rhythms, facticity, and plot. Nothing obliges the author of this entertaining but morally astringent comedy to be any more cheering than that.
Two brief scenes, as I mentioned in the beginning, sturdily frame Greenan's entangled horrors. In the opening, Nathalie, a French-Canadian motel maid, sums up Ludy Gilman's death in an iambic dimeter French quatrain.
While Arlene sobbed into a wad of pink Kleenex, Nathalie contemplated the faint impression in the nap of the electric-blue rug — the night manager's last at the Montevideo — and said in a tone of wonder, "So quick it happened. So sudden. Poor Ludy! He was not old, either. Only a touch of gray in his funny wavy hair. A crazy type, but I liked him — even if he was always pinching my derrière. . . and chasing after all the pretty young boys, too.
"La vie est brève,
Un peu d'amour,
Un peu de rève,
Et puis, Bonjour."
The brawny maid recited softly as though to herself. "But now, Arlene, it is necessary to dry your tears and call up Mr. Ortega. Tell him the whole tragic histoire. He will have to employ another night clerk tout de suite. And do not leave the desk until Alfred arrives, eh? There will be guests checking out. Me, I am going to poor Ludy's cabin and search for the names of his relatives. They will need to be phoned. It is all so sad and cruel. " (2)
From a last "faint impression in the nap of the electric-blue rug" arises Greenan's wriggling tale, and on this same rug, as he closes the frame, the book will end.
"Oh, mon Dieu — it's him, absolument," said Nathalie, jiggling her carpet sweeper. "The mouth, the eyes, the funny wavy hair — he is certainly the brother of Ludy who came here two months ago. Now he also is dead, and his rich wife, too — their heads chopped off like with the guillotine. Quelle horreur! [. . .] About faces, Mr. Ortega, I have a memory extraordinaire. It is him," said the maid unequivocally. "And they are all of them dead — the two brothers and the young rich wife. What a tragedy, eh?" She struck a dramatic pose and recited feelingly:
"La vie est vaine,
Un peu d'espoir,
Un peu de haine,
Et puis, Bonsoir."
Mr. Ortega glanced at her quizzically, and said, "I don't speak French, Nathalie."
"Quelle dommage. That is a little poem by Alfred de Musset — a thing I learn when I am small at school in Rimouski," she replied, a wistful note in her voice. "It means only that life is good for nothing. A little hope, a little hate — and then, good night. Very sad, n'est-ce pas?"
Before the motel owner could answer, however, his telephone rang and he picked it up.
Nathalie sighed, and resumed sweeping the wall-to-wall electric-blue broadloom. (214)
With the high formality of these two mirrored scenes — the repetitions of "funny wavy hair" and Alfred de Musset's concise rhymed equation; the "electric-blue rug" expanding to the "wall-to-wall electric-blue broadloom"; "It is all so sad and cruel" condensing to "Very sad, n'est-ce pas?"; and "the whole tragic histoire" that constitutes the narrative within the frame — Greenan seals shut his intricately ordered Can of Worms.
About the Author
Tom Whalen's nonfiction has appeared in Bookforum, Film Quarterly, The Missouri Review, Northwest Review, Studies in Short Fiction, The Wallace Stevens Journal, the Washington Post, and Witness. The Birth of Death and Other Comedies: The Novels of Russell H.Greenan is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive in July 2011.
His web address is www.tomwhalen.com.