Wednesday, September 23, 2015

One Could Hardly Spoil Them Further

A quick note for board game fans:

Contributors to Twitter have begun a thread describing how to #RuinABoardGame: by cleverly, and minimally, renaming particular "classics" so as to alter their themes. The best titles, in Your Humble Narrator's opinion, are these:

1) Neglect Four
2) Hungry Hungry Hipsters
3) Flight RISK
4) Sharts and Ladders
5) Cards Against Huge Manatees
6) Spousetrap
7) Nose Candyland
8) Custody Battleship
9) Dungeons and Drag Queens
10) Mahjong Is Bigger Than Yourjong

Most of these (5 and 9 excepted) are the mass-produced dreck many of us learned to despise as children, and whose association with spoiled childhood afternoons makes their re-purposing with adult themes particularly entertaining. #2, incidentally reminds me of this, and #9 would probably appeal to more people than the original.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Horse We Rode In On

Them Bones, 1-10, 29-34:

Howard Waldrop's novel begins in 1929 with carefully-chosen details establishing the setting: a sultry night somewhere in the South, a tent lit by a sooty kerosene lantern, a record player “honking out 'Potato Head Blues,'” and the chapter's protagonist, Bessie, evoking an explorer or archaeologist in her khaki and "pith helmet.” Her first line, “There's a horse in the small mound,” tells us she follows the latter profession, while the mound reference indicates she and her partner Dr. Kinkaid are on a dig. The first paragraph on page two, describing “Louisiana swamp sounds,” lets the informed reader know why she is alarmed to have found the horse: no horses existed in America during these mound-building Indians' lives. In my account of Hiero's Journey I praised Sterling Lanier for establishing his novel's setting and describing the main character within two pages. Waldrop, an expert at short fiction, has worked even more efficiently here. By the middle of page two we have met two of the principal characters, established their profession and setting, and identified the research problem (an impossible anachronism) that proves key to the book's other two plot lines. Unlike Lanier, Waldrop makes this look effortless, the product of hints dropped in conversation or seemingly-minor details mentioned in passing. The apparent artlessness of the achievement belies, of course, the thousands of hours of writing experience that must have gone into so smooth an introduction. 

Waldrop's story flows just as smoothly forward from there. Bessie and Kincaid head out into the thick, hot night, past lightning bugs and cheeping frogs, to investigate the unusual find. They arrive at "mound 2A," which the book describes as a fourteenth-century (CE) platform mound surmounted by a conical burial mound. Bessie's black assistant William (who wears shoes with "bunion slits," a nice touch) ends any uncertainty about the bones by positively identifying them; he had visited slaughterhouses and tells us “Ain't no mistaking” a horse's skull (5). Waldrop then elides a dull skull-cleaning scene by having Kincaid order Bessie and the other crew members to sleep while he works through the night, saving his finds for the next scene.

Bessie returns to Kincaid's tent at daybreak. Ominously, the gramophone is silent, and the varnished horse skull glares at her from Kincaid's camp table. Kincaid has his partner examine a neat round hole in the skull, of the sort a high-velocity projectile might produce, then hands her his most alarming find: a corroded metal cylinder, caked in dirt, that Bessie recognizes as a “brass rifle cartridge” (10). Ain't no mistaking one of those, either.

Waldrop breaks from the 1929 archaeologists to start his other two plot lines, but for sake of continuity and elucidation I'll finish this entry with the next part of this storyline, “Bessie II.” We rejoin Bessie and Kincaid later in the day, as their crew, “look[ing] like a bunch of ants” (29) in the distance, dig deeper into mound 2A. By now they have found another six jumbled horse skeletons, buried with other grave goods and some potsherds datable to 700-1500 CE. This confirms Bessie's fears about the cartridge: it postdates the upper chronological limit of the associated Indian culture by 350 years.

It's not the only thing the archaeologists have to fret about. Waldrop uses another feature of the landscape, the sluggish Suckatoncha Bayou, to tell readers that the mounds sit on a floodplain, due to submerge in a few weeks when the state finishes its newest flood-control barriers. However, recent heavy rains have caused state officials to close the dams downriver, and the waters near Bessie's dig are already rising. She and Kincaid have to solve an unsolvable mystery within a shrinking time limit.

Kincaid tells us new crews will soon arrive to help with the dig and its interpretation. It's a good thing, too: both he and Bessie are completely stumped.  

Coming next: Madison Yazoo Leake is very lost.


(Image of Pharr Mounds, MS, courtesy of the National Park Service.)