Friday, January 24, 2014

Death Valley, piece by piece

Puzzles come in. Puzzles go out. Some puzzles stay.

I buy new puzzles, used puzzles and collectible puzzles. I have a couple of very expensive puzzles. I choose them based on a host of criteria. Sometimes I am compelled by the image. Sometimes I like the shapes of the pieces or the quality of the puzzle. I love fine art puzzles and vintage puzzles. Despite my advanced age, I love puzzles with candy images. No thanks to heartwarmers or fantasy themes. I don't care much for touristy/landmark puzzles unless I am compelled to them for some quirky reason or if they have a quiet emotional tether.

Which brings me to the Death Valley puzzle.

I've had it for the longest time. Ten years? At least. Maybe longer. I'm not sure where I bought it; probably at a thrift store or garage sale. It no doubt originally came from the sole gift shop in Death Valley, which still carries it.

Johnny, 1972
Death Valley is a strange, mystical place. My brother John wanted his ashes strewn about this low dry land, although they only made it as far as the Mohave Desert--I think (it's a long and sad story with many missing pieces). Nonetheless, Death Valley was important to John and he conjured it in his novel The Assault on Tony's by way of a single word. From page 57:

Langston nodded, gulping. Such was McTeague.

I had no idea what McTeague meant when I first saw that short paragraph. Being so strangely phrased and precisely placed, I knew it had to be important. I investigated. It didn't long take to discover Frank Norris's 1899 novel of the same name.

Although far from John's best work, for me Tony's remains the most definitive and maddening entry in his portfolio. Profoundly personal, it is all commentary and metaphor. John's mention of McTeague is the most economic literary reference I have ever encountered. The dramatic arc of McTeague, which is a bizarre tale of greed and hoarding, concludes in a devastating scene in Death Valley. Hence with one word, John culminates those themes as well as booze, addiction, life and death--ideologically and geographically.

Death Valley.

When I reshuffled my puzzle collection a few weeks ago, I came upon the Death Valley puzzle and couldn't remember if it was complete. Souvenir puzzles are often poor quality, but this one has it's merits. The pieces are diverse and oddly shaped. The cardboard is sturdy. The image adherence is good. The pieces of this puzzle, however, do not have a snug fit. Some are warped and do not lay flat. I constructed the puzzle nonetheless, thinking about John and Tony's and Death Valley and McTeague.

The loose fitting pieces were frustrating. They wouldn't stay put, even after they were correctly placed. The on-deck pieces kept sticking to my forearms. Once completed (no pieces were missing), the puzzle was tenuous at best.

The two least enjoyable stages of jigsaw puzzling are at the beginning (laying out all the pieces) and at the end (taking the puzzle apart). Some puzzles fit together so tightly, you can pick the constructed puzzle up as a single unit. Such puzzles often have to be taken apart piece by piece. I am notoriously bad at deconstructing puzzles, often leaving big chunks of stubborn puzzles intact.

But when the time came to take apart the Death Valley puzzle, no deconstruction was necessary. Not one piece seemed committed to the pieces around it, as if they had no conviction to maintain the whole from whence they came. The puzzle just crumbled apart in my hands.

I fumbled with the indifferent pieces as John's ghost chortled.  I sighed and put them into their box. John folded back into his papery grave.

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Mrs. C said...

He haunts you in such poignant ways. Lovely, really.

John Venlet said...

I agree with Mrs. C, Erin.