THE COLLIDESCOPE, September 27, 2020
Reviewed by George Salis
About Johnny Stanton: Johnny Stanton was born in 1943 in Manhattan, the son of Irish immigrants from Galway. He was an altar boy and Eagle Scout who attended Catholic schools & eventually graduated from Columbia University, where he fell in with many poets and writers of the New York School, including Kenneth Koch, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, and Paul Auster. He published many of them, some for the first time, in his Siamese Banana Press, which started as a newspaper in 1972 and ended as a performance gang in 1978. He is the author of many short stories and the novel Mangled Hands, neglected by critics yet highly acclaimed by the readers who discover it. He has lived in the East Village for 30 years with his wife, the poet Elinor Nauen, a cat (currently Lefty), and a lot of art.
I interviewed Johnny Stanton and his wife, the poet Elinor Nauen, here.
“Ancient stories of black darkness and terrible falls plugged the holes in my body…”
Mangled Hands is a fantasy wound in book form, written without thumbs and employing an amalgamation of mangled manuscripts, including the works of Conan the Barbarian, yet it reads as seamlessly as a dream, in which the dreamer never questions the oneiric logic, the lesional loggia, and one becomes a passive observer, an eager believer in this shared phantasmagoria of gored phantasms. As “words dripped from his wounds,” all that we see or seem is indeed a dream.
The plot follows the plight of Tarcisius Tandihetsi, an adolescent Native American of the Huron tribe who is returning home with a French trading party via the Great River. In addition to having a traditional, biological father, he has a Father in a priest referred to as Blackrobe, for like most of the boy’s kith and kin, he has converted to Christianity, a belief system that possesses as much power in this world as the mythologies of the tribes. In the middle of the river, the party sees the ill omen of a diabolical beaver removing its skin and it’s not long until they are captured by their archenemies, the Poison Snake People. They’re hairless except for fur on the soles of their feet and their palms and, supernaturally, they live in Tardis-like kettles and have the ability of ecdysis.
This tribe is led by a Judas or even Luciferian figure formerly of the Huron, Snake Tooth, an impossible apostate who had been “born during a festival of bad dreams, therefore everyone feared him. When he was three years old he was already building gigantic torture fires….” During their journey as captives heading for the village of the Poison Snake People, they encounter other tribes and creatures, such as the naked stone giants: “Each of these monsters was as tall as a tree. The lower half of their bodies was large and heavy, their legs were as thick and solid as deep-veined stones. Their upper bodies were light and airy like tree branches growing out of their heads. Each branch was a long arm with many hands and fingers. Their heads were the middle part of their bodies, joining together the upper and lower halves…. […]Their hairy manhoods were pointing straight out from just below their stomachs, but it was also just below their chins, which jutted out and down, so it looked like they had bushy beards and were about to smoke long tobacco pipes. Their skin color was a mixture of rock gray and tree brown.” Oh, and they can breathe fire out of their ‘pipes.’
Although the Poison Snake People join forces with the Killer Yellow Dogs and the Antler Face People, there is a looming enemy that is a threat to all, the mysterious invisible animals of oracular origin: “‘…as the Giant Snake in the earth dies, bits of its flesh fall off, and each little bit becomes an invisible animal.’” These sharp-toothed demons slowly become desensitized to their acrophobia and begin to climb like apparitional acrobats onto the terrestrial plane.
The Poison Snake People and their captives do eventually reach the village where Tarcisius Tandihetsi barely survives gory torture and transmogrification, though at times he is almost treated as one of them and even gets to observe and participate in some wholly strange games, such as Whip Lash and Snake Eyes. To play the latter exophthalmic game, “The Snake warriors knelt behind separate bundles of red and green feathers as tall as mounds of snow. There were no teams flying back and forth…every player depended on their own eyes, which seemed to be shaking inside their heads. Each warrior in his turned popped out his eyes as far as he could. […] The Snake eyes would float ever so slowly to the wet ground, and while they were still in the air, the warrior from a kneeling position with a quick flick of the wrist tried to stick as many feathers as possible into his two or three eyes. They could also throw out as many dead eyes of eaten captives as they had saved…”
Indeed, there is animating cannibalism, bodies are dismembered and remembered, genitals are molested and mutilated, and amid the Poison Snake People’s brutality, anatomy is its own necromancy, for—peace pipe war pipe—Mangled Hands is a hashish feather fever dream on the muscled back of a galloping night mare. Of course, the most symbolic maiming occurs in the form of Blackrobe’s Mangled Hands, which echoes those of the historical missionary Isaac Jogues who interacted with the Huron as well as the Iroquois and other tribes, and the final echo is that of Christ’s Mangled Hands after iron nails were ran in through his palms.
Is this first-person account of a beautiful and brutal paracosm true? All we know is the declarative sentence repeated almost mantra-like at the end of each chapter: “I, Tarcisius Tandihetsi, say so.”
Soft-spoken and compressed with wonderful mythological and philosophical implications, this realization of hallucination reminded me of Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, except Stanton’s novel is about a Huron boy in the 16th century rather than a Nigerian boy in the 20th. Uncannily enough, the works of Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola are also evoked without intention.
Prose-wise, there is no wordplay here as such, for the words-phrases-sentences were mostly played with behind the ‘seens,’ fondled and nobbled to make a mosaic that sayeth surreality reigns supreme, featuring a quincunx of juxtapositions and a medley of replicating muses: feathers, slime, hair, teeth, smoke, blood, etc.
In somewhat Lynchian fashion, characters sometimes speak in semi-non sequiturs and mystical mumbo jumbo which is a product of eavesdropping upon a mythopoeic and confabulating confab. I was even at times reminded of the sparse and potent poetry of Barton Smock, such as when a character articulates this in relation to the looming threat: “If it’s a word, it’s not an animal. And if it’s an animal, its voice won’t reflect light, so you can escape from its language.”
I found it difficult to escape from the mesmurmurizing language Stanton has crafted in this, his only novel, begun in the late 60s or thereabouts and finally published, thank the gods, by Sun & Moon Press in 1985, and of course such a masterpiece was ignored by the ever-unreliable literary community. But if you breathe life into this invisible book, it will surely breathe life into you.
I, George Salis, say so.