Diane Glancy’s Flutie (1998)
In the annals of imaginative literature it’s not uncommon to encounter an author making use of things found in nature functioning as symbols of events in human affairs – as archetypes. For example, since human beings first began to tell stories water has been employed as a symbol of life itself, of cleansing, of rebirth and renaissance; dust has often been employed as a symbol of death, or of the passing of something old into something new; and lastly the wind has often been used to symbolize change, or the passage of time. Of course, an author in command of the craft of fiction utilizes these elements of nature in a plausible, realistic way within the setting of the story first and then introduces or implies the double meaning, or the symbolic meaning, secondarily. Diane Glancy’s novel Flutie starts with an unattributed epigraph that points the way towards an employment of this sort of strategy:
“There’s the sky and the ground with nothing between them but a landscape of stories you can hear if you hold your ear to the air to the land -“
Nature, the earth, the heavens, the universe – these things are at the epicenter of understanding this novel. So is psychological alienation; lastly, the novel attempts to examine the complexities of family relationships within a given social structure. The cerebral energy, the vastness of the author’s understanding of issues both cosmic and personal, crackles on the pages here. The idea of controlled examination of issues of very large scope is in full play. At certain points Glancy almost lurches off completely into outright cosmology, but it’s never pretentious or forced, never fake. “Sometimes she looked down the highway and it was like a corridor into space.”
Flutie Moses is the thirteen year old daughter of a Cherokee father and a mother with German ancestry. Her brother, Franklin, is five years older. Both Franklin and the father work at Hampton’s Garage, where they are pretty good mechanics. The mother is something of a volatile hellion, constantly in a condition of nervous agitation, though the source of her personality is never really explained (she neither parties much nor chases men, the usual sources, but she does constantly get speeding tickets on the highway, and throws a fit of fury when her driver’s license is finally revoked). The family is poor – “Nothing else could be counted on. Except poverty… ” “Flutie’s father wouldn’t let up. If Franklin finished high school, he could go to college and learn accounting. Then they could buy the garage and run it. They wouldn’t always be at a loss.” “Flutie realized they didn’t have any money. But maybe they could get it.” And most tellingly:
” They were all poor in Western Oklahoma. There was only the hope of marrying, having children, and continuing the struggle with her nose pushed into the dirt.”
This is their existence, the sum total of what they can expect, all that there is. But Flutie aspires to more. Her family doesn’t, and in this regard Glancy follows the novel I always think of as really the first by a Native American author to gain serious literary attention among the cognoscenti and the literati, Winter in the Blood by James Welch. Native Americans trying to assimilate into America, eking out their livings at menial jobs, drinking heavily, passing day by day by boring day in the gigantic open spaces of places like Montana, Wyoming, Oklahoma. Essentially there is nothing else to look forward to. Texas has magical connotations for Flutie, as if it were some profoundly exotic place, but when she goes to the border it is just a simple wooden sign with the word Texas on it, and the other side looks exactly like Oklahoma.
I think it’s most profitable to take a glance at Glancy’s novel by means of the three points I outlined above, in a slightly different order:
Psychological Alienation – Flutie is completely cut off from the world around her, existing almost like a fish in a bowl, and for reasons that are not fully explained she has trouble speaking, even choking out a sentence. A stranger comes out of a car, asking where a certain highway is, and all she can do is point. She can’t speak before her class when the teacher calls on her to give a report or do a math problem. “She tried to talk in front of the class, but there was no air. The teacher looked at her. The students stared. Their eyes were fish eyes.” Although sometimes Flutie’s inability to speak seems to resemble familiar troubles of this kind such as stage fright or fear of public speaking, there really is no suggestion that it’s a common speech dysfunction such as stuttering, apraxia or dysarthria – its a consequence of her loneliness. Our hearts of course go out to this intelligent, sensitive, feeling, pure little girl who is so traumatized by experience that she can’t even talk, but upon reflecting there ‘s a much deeper point here that knocks us flat on our backs, which is this – the author’s incredible facility with language, her virtuosity with means of expression, exists right in our faces, in spectacular contrast to Flutie’s inability to communicate, and in this way our own sharing of Flutie’s pain is made even more acute because we intuit all that she’s lacking and missing. She seems to be paralyzed by everything – the landscape, her family, her dreams that bring to her frightening visions of mysterious spirit women and deer. All these things seem to act upon her psyche to choke back her speech. She’s only at total peace when she collects rocks or builds a paiper mache volcano for a school project. When she enters college she does so with the intention to study geology, which at least means she’s following her passion, the thing that has interested her since childhood.
Family (and some friends) – in addition to Franklin and her parents a few friends and neighbors also surround Flutie – the old brother and sister, Luther and Ruther Rutherford; her brother’s two wives, Geneva and Swallow, respectively; a literalist minister; and Jess Tessman, a suitor whom everyone but Flutie herself has decided she should marry.
Her family is problematic and not particularly supportive, and we’ll look at the three now.
Franklin wants to do nothing but work on cars and go to car shows, drink with his friends (a group of leather clad motorcycle toughs) and pick up women (he actually runs around with his second wife, Swallow, before he marries his first, Geneva – “Swallow was a girl every boy wanted but Franklin got her with his car.”) In typical circumstances, Franklin meets Geneva when he repairs her car, and he has to repair her car because it was sideswiped by his own mother. Franklin and his father argue constantly, to the point of physical confrontation. The father throws his toast at Franklin, Franklin hurls a plate at him. At age twenty Franklin is still in high school, then he gets arrested for stealing auto parts and is put away for two years. Flutie knows he’s a thief – he and his friends steal the hood ornaments off cars, and his room is filled with these pilfered artifacts. At one point Flutie confronts one of Franklin’s pals, whom she knows is about to steal an ornament off a car, and she is greeted with curses and insults. He sneers “What can you do?” – a question that people ask her throughout the novel. (At one point she goes for a job in a store and the owner asks her, “What can you do? Can you count?” The fact that she’s being asked if she can count implies that she appears to many people to be slow, or mentally disabled.) In a particularly uncomfortable moment, when Franklin returns from his hitch in prison, he violently makes love to his wife upstairs while the others, eating breakfast, can plainly hear through the cheap walls. He doesn’t learn. After he marries Swallow she bales hay in the blazing sun in a bikini, with dozens of male workers around, and in the end fate deals him an excessively ironic blow. The depth of feeling Flutie feels for her wayward brother is very strong, almost tearjerking:
“Flutie’s mother was upset that Franklin was restless in Stringtown. The last time Flutie drove her there, he cried in frustration. He hit the wire window between them in rage. The guards had taken Franklin back to his cell while his mother yelled at them. Flutie felt queasy. Franklin, Fluite cried in her room. She wanted to be a deer for him. Put him on her back. Tell him to hold on to her antlers. Take him out of Stringtown. Out of Vini. Give him something to do. Give him hope.”
We should note, in that passage, that the mother is shown in one of her habitual conditions – yelling.
The word yell is constantly associated with her and might even be her primary mode of verbal behavior. In relation to Flutie she is often making cruel or demeaning remarks and it’s abundantly clear that she loves Franklin more, or at least in a different way. But she’s mostly a mystery. Glancy offers little in the way of psychological explanation or background in regard to her, and in this fashion she remains sealed off from the reader in the same way that she seems sealed off from the other characters. Her essence appears to me to be impenetrable.
This is also somewhat the case with the father, but at least in his instance we’re supplied with some information. He keeps a sweat lodge in the back yard, and when his wife demands he get rid of it he fights her vigorously, declaring it to be the only reminder of his people that he has left. Fluite begs for affection, for simple fatherly attention – he appears incapable of giving it. When she simply asks him to tell her a story he refuses, or can’t do it. His discourse with Franklin is always either harsh, condemning, or else they bypass talk to resort to physical violence. Communication between the two parents, too, is limited to insults or biting comments about each other’s worst habits. This family environment isn’t conducive to positive growth at all.
Nature and the earth. Throughout the book when Flutie tries to speak in uncomfortable situations Glancy introduces water metaphors into the text, and Flutie is constantly thinking about, or observing, situations of nature. Just a small sampling:
“Her head felt full of water. If she tried to talk the words moved like waves on an ocean”
” (she heard) The wind and water from the dried sea that had once covered the Great Plains”.
“There was a rock buried in the road. Sometimes Flutie could see it after a wash out. But rain didn’t come that often or hard in western Oklahoma. She liked knowing the rock was there. It was a barrier. A protector… In fact, she imagined that the rock held up all of Oklahoma from the aquifier that tried to climb above the land.”
“Her voice moved inside her like a a boat.”
“The Salt Plains were the giant mouth where everything was swallowed. The sink where the ocean had drained with a sob in its chest.”
“Somewhere under the heavens, somewhere, something was happening. But she couldn’t see it. The prairie was in her way. The whole world groaned in western Oklahoma. The emptiness sucked the sounds into itself.”
“A child dying in Africa. A woman crying in Bangladesh. Franklin turning in his bed in Stringtown. A man without hope in Wales. Russians flatten a Chechan Village… “
Virtually every page contains writing of this quality, allusions to the natural world that seem to occur wholly within Flutie’s mind (no one else is capable of this kind of interior poetry). The effect is almost as if her brain is the receiving station for the antenna of the universe. Remarkable!
This is a somber, deeply meditative novel whose layers can be peeled and peeled like the proverbial onion. It holds out cautious hope for its heroine and offers countless textures of possibility to the reader, making a reading experience that’s hauntingly uneasy to forget.