In the hierarchy of Hibernian drinking establishments in Los Angeles, Molly Malone’s is firmly entrenched near the bottom. Located midway between downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica, and twenty unwalkable blocks south of Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, the pub hovers on the fringes of respectability. The La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Petersen Automotive Museum—permanent home of the Batmobile—are all nearby, but not near enough for the bar to benefit from the tourist traffic. Sandwiched between a camera-repair shop and a vacant storefront, Molly’s is a neighborhood joint.
Sure, the TV-news crews surface on St. Patrick’s Day, and Richard Harris filmed a scene for the adaptation of Tom Clancy’s novel Patriot Games here, but Molly’s principal attraction is its gloom. Not just any gloom, but the lugubrious dank endemic to woody nooks patinaed with old smoke and fresh regrets. Molly’s is lively enough at night, but by day it transforms into the kind of place where things are not meant to be seen clearly and whiskey always seems like a fine idea. The owner tried to brighten the place up a bit with pictures of the bar’s namesake—a comely nineteenth-century cockle seller whose statue on Grafton Street is affectionately referred to as “the tart with the cart”—but the effort is wasted. Molly’s is an oasis of darkness in a city cursed with light.
It’s easy to believe that nothing ever changes here. Indeed, Molly’s may very well be allergic to it. The same dusty array of oil paintings has darkened the walls for as long as anyone can remember: JFK, Bobby Sands, Brendan Behan. My favorite portrait features an old silver-haired gent with thick eyeglasses. Sometimes, when my vision is sufficiently adumbrated by excesses of stout, the portrait morphs into the death mask of James Aloysius Joyce—a portrait of the artist as a dead man. The actual mask is permanently on display at the museum housed inside the Martello Tower in Sandy Cove, Dublin County, where Joyce briefly lived and later chose as the setting for the opening scene of the book that would forever change the way we think about novels.
Perhaps this association is what led me to suggest Molly’s as the location for the first meeting of the Ulysses reading group. Molly’s seemed like a logical choice, as our group was a decidedly nonacademic lot: a library clerk, a coffee jerk, a juvenile-corrections officer, two carpenters, and a copywriter. However, because this was L.A., we preferred to be described as an actor, a zinester, a musician, a poet, a rock star, and (you knew this was coming) an amateur screenwriter. In short, we were a bunch of regular guys.1
Although I’d advised the group that Ulysses had been flung across more rooms than an IRS instruction booklet, we possessed the requisite rashness of youth and the impetuousness of those who seek out challenges. Our methodology was simple: read a chapter a week and meet at a pub to discuss what we’d read. To keep things interesting, we agreed to meet at a different pub each week. I think all of us felt the dense prose and dark stout was a heady, if not romantic, combination. We were more right than we knew.
Even though the sun was still strong in the late-summer sky, the bar was so dark I could do little more than grope my way to the spot beneath my favorite painting. Mack the carpenter-poet walked in and joined me at the table. Ringo the set-builder was next. Like most rock stars in the swirling firmament of L.A.’s unsigned musicians, he fancied himself a lady’s man; but Ringo was the real deal, a bona fide lothario, and unapologetically so. My roommate, Don, showed up shortly after Ringo arrived. He worked the dawn shift at a coffee roaster and spent the rest of the day as an unpaid intern at an independent punk-rock publishing concern. Christian was the last to appear. He had played a professor in a really bad horror movie, and spent the bulk of his time at the law library where he worked downloading Japanese porn and ranting about the Green Bay Packers in online forums.
“I can’t see a thing,” he announced.
The gloom was so great we could barely make out the words on the page. When the next round of pints arrived en masse like a platoon of tan-hatted soldiers, we found another use for the novels: we used them as coasters.
I suggested we begin by extemporizing our first impressions, and was somewhat surprised to find our pronouncements in agreement: the literary pyrotechnics that Joyce is famous for are not on display in Chapter One (Buck Mulligan calls “coarsely,” says “sternly,” “gaily,” and “quietly,” cries “briskly,” and “thickly,” and shaves “warily”—and that’s just the first two pages); the ballad of joking Jesus is pretty damn funny (“I’m the queerest young fellow that ever you heard. My mother’s a jew, my father’s a bird”); and the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, clearly has a stick up his ass.
Ulysses opens at 8:00 a.m. on the morning of June 16, 1904. An incident that transpired at the Tower the previous evening has Dedalus so upset, he cannot talk about it. We spent most of the evening trying to figure out what this might be. We agreed the last word in the chapter—“usurper”—offered the strongest clue, but who was usurping whom? Was the cause of Stephen’s distress love, money, or something else altogether? We couldn’t decide, nor was there a pressing need to make a decision. The discussion was the point, the all in all. We ordered another round and listened to Christian recite passages in a serviceable Irish accent. Ringo chatted up the girls sitting at the bar. I prattled on about the Odyssey, and was swiftly dispatched by Mack and Don to buy drinks. When Mack suggested the word “usurper” is derived from the primitive Celtic curse, “You surp,” I knew we’d reached a good stopping point.
While we were gathering up our books, the bartender cleared our table.
“Who’s that?” I asked, pointing to the doppelgänger of the Joycean death mask.
“That’s Slim Parnell. A great, great guy. He was a regular here. He passed away.”
“Are all of these paintings of regulars?”
“Yep. A guy who worked over at the museum painted them. He would take photos of the regulars and a few days later he’d come back with a portrait. He told me when he filled the place up he was going to quit drinking and never come back.”
“What happened to him?”
“He quit drinking and never came back.”
You pick up Ulysses, read “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead,” and become intrigued. You continue reading, amused and somewhat underwhelmed, but somewhere around “the ineluctable modality of the visible” you lose your way, and put the novel down. Sound familiar?
The book lies dormant on your nightstand, exuding a slightly menacing aura. You tell yourself you’ll pick it up again, not because you want to, but because you feel it’s something you have to do. Ulysses is not so much a book to be read as an expedition to be undertaken. You are personally acquainted with others who have tried to read the novel and failed, but their passion for literature is less pure than your own, so you resolve to give it another go.
Weeks pass. A literary journal arrives in the mail and is placed atop Mt. Ulysses, which—let’s face it—is starting to intimidate you. A shiny short-story collection, a new book from your favorite novelist, and the bestseller everyone is talking about—books you actually want to read—are added to the stack. The teetering pile becomes so large there is no longer any room on the nightstand for the lamp, the clock radio, the occasional sex toy. In a fit of cleaning brought on by overzealous intake of over-the-counter allergy medicine, you slide Ulysses back into the gaping hole in the bookshelf where it belongs.
This unsatisfactory transaction leaves you with a diminished view of the book’s merits, the author’s skills, and the reputation of both. A few weeks later, at a discreet gathering of literature lovers, you use the word “overrated” to describe Ulysses, and no one disagrees with you. The verdict is in: it’s not your fault you couldn’t finish the book, it’s Joyce’s.
It used to be Ulysses was loved by wooly academics and despised by just about everyone else. Thirty-five years ago anyone who taught, edited, or critiqued literature would have read Ulysses. Today educators, editors, and critics can flaunt their ignorance with impunity.
Joyce, writes Richard Ellmann in his inestimable biography (James Joyce, 1983), was “the first to endow an urban man of no importance with heroic consequence.” Ironically, it’s the common reader who finds Ulysses the most problematic. Many of the reviews on Amazon.com, that bastion of Average Joe-dom, are scathing in their vitriol. At this writing, 54 out of 309 reviewers had awarded Ulysses a single star. The titles tell the story: “unimpressed,” “overated” [sic], “unreadable,” “overblown nonsense,” “deliberately obscure and icky.” They range from the enraged (“What a horrible book!”) to the exasperated (“uggghhhhh!”) to the philosophical (“Life is too short to read Ulysses”). Some are downright clever: “Fingernails on a chalkboard or Ulysses? Fingernails please!” The blogger Doug Shaw, who decided to read and review the Modern Library’s list of the one hundred best novels written in English during the twentieth century, posted the following on his site: “I stopped enjoying the very fact of my existence, knowing that the same God who created me also created James Joyce.” It has suddenly become fashionable to diss. 2
There are many reasons for this. Ulysses is a big, complex book. It’s not a doorstopper like Atlas Shrugged or Infinite Jest, but it’s no lightweight either. Ulysses’ volume, though daunting, is overshadowed by its complexity. Each of its eighteen chapters employs a different narrative technique. Once the reader becomes acclimated to the rigors and peculiarities of a particular chapter, the next one champions a completely new style of expression. The shifts between chapters are often as disparate and dramatic as the voices one hears as you make your way down the radio dial. In a very real sense, each chapter is its own entity, which makes it a very difficult novel to teach.3 It’s too big, too complex, and in these politically sensitive times, too Irish-Catholic.4 This is a shame, because when books, especially old books, fall out of favor with teachers and critics, their cultural currency diminishes, and our incentive for reading them diminishes with it.
Let’s set the matter straight. Ulysses is complex, but it isn’t complicated. While it’s true Joyce famously bragged he’d “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries,” it’s actually a very straightforward book. The action is limited to a single day in a small, European city at the turn of the twentieth century. There are two main characters: a son without a mother and a father without a son. They find each other. The plot revolves around the sex the protagonist’s wife enjoys with someone who isn’t the protagonist. The rest of the book is concerned almost exclusively with the quotidian. Taking a bath. Feeding the cat. Shopping for books. Noses are picked, bums wiped. The Dubliners who populate Ulysses drink, screw, and crack jokes. Occasionally, someone breaks into song. Ulysses endures because its themes are universal.
Our second and third meetings took place at Timmy Nolan’s—a brightly lit fern bar in a residential neighborhood between Burbank and North Hollywood known as Toluca Lake, a place made semi-famous in 1994 when Quentin Tarantino used it as the setting for the dead-body-disposal scene in Pulp Fiction. Timmy Nolan’s is not a place where you’ll find rough characters (although we did see Ted Nugent at the bar) and while it is not technically illegal to pour a pint of Guinness as if it were a low species of lager, that doesn’t make it any less of a crime.
Despite the fact that Timmy Nolan’s is an Irish pub in name only, it is a popular gathering place for single people in their late twenties, which explained why Ringo and Mack insisted on meeting there. Our first order of business was to welcome our newest member, Larry, a bandmate of Ringo’s, who worked as a teacher for the California Youth Authority. To get Larry up to speed, I furnished him with a copy of the minutes of the previous week’s meeting. I thought it was a good idea to preserve the gist of our discussions, and appointed myself secretary.
While I was recording the minutes, it occurred to me that our group needed a name. We agreed that the name should come from the text, and almost immediately settled on the name Dogsbody: Irish slang for someone who does odd jobs. This seemed as accurate a description as we were likely to find for Ringo and Mack, who supplied nonunion carpentry work for independent film and video-production companies. The name also suited the way we felt the morning after a night of epic stout consumption: poor, bloated, dog-like. Plus, it sounded cool.
We drank to our new name and got down to more pressing questions. Namely, why is Stephen Dedalus such a colossal wanker?
Dedalus belongs to that species of egghead that is instantly recognizable to students of literature everywhere: he has all the arrogance of genius, yet lacks the social skills necessary to make himself agreeable to others. To his credit, he is not subservient to the nationalist, Catholic, sentimental impulses that characterize the majority of the Irish race. Irish history may be a nightmare from which he is trying to awaken, but there are plenty of reasons to wish Dedalus had stayed in bed.
Let’s not mince words here: Stephen Dedalus is an insufferable prick. He is saddled with debt, has bad teeth, and is hydrophobic. If Stephen were to sit down next to us at a coffeeshop or bar, we would shun him like a leper. If you’re looking for a reason why so many readers abandon Ulysses in the opening pages of the novel, look no further. Of all the members of the Dogsbody group, only Ringo found Dedalus sympathetic.
Ringo reminded us that Dedalus, like Joyce, has returned to Dublin from Paris because his mother has passed away. Although his sorrow is augmented by guilt over refusing his dying mother’s request to pray at her bedside, the man is obviously distraught. As Dedalus walks along the beach, he sees death, ruin, and decay everywhere he looks, but he has no outlet for these emotions. He seeks the solace of companionship, but feels spurned by the betrayal of his friends. He craves a woman’s touch, but in spite of his massive intellect, his ruinous finances make him a poor prospect. When he fantasizes about women, he dreams of vampires and harlots. Even if you don’t like Dedalus, Ringo argued, you have to admire Joyce for having the courage to present such a painfully honest portrayal of his youthful self without airbrushing the blemishes.
Throughout the meeting, Ringo had been giving the eye to a flirtatious blonde perched at the bar, and when her companion got up to use the jakes, Ringo pounced. The rest of us put Part One to bed by clinking our glasses together and congratulating ourselves. We felt as if we’d just completed a difficult weeder course and had all earned passing marks. Even though we’d read just 1/16th of the novel, we’d crossed a threshold attained by only a small percentage of those who make the endeavor. If Ulysses is a sea journey, Part One represents the laborious process of getting underway. There’s a lot of heaving and straining and wasted motion, and complicated instructions are required for the simplest tasks. But once we’d cleared the harbor, the swells lifted us up and a strong wind filled the sails. We were finally getting somewhere.
What’s so special about June 16, 1904, anyway?
Ellmann tells us it was “a fine breezy day, with four hours of sunshine, and a clear night”—just another summer day in the Hibernian metropolis—but for James Aloysius Joyce, there was nothing ordinary about it.
To understand the special significance of this particular Saturday, we have to go back a week. Joyce was walking down Nassau Street when he accosted an attractive young woman with splendid carriage. He was charmed by her Galway accent and independent air. She was struck by his pale blue eyes and worldly mien. They agreed to meet a few days later, but Nora Barnacle stood him up.
Distraught, Joyce penned a petulant note and posted it on the morning of the fifteenth. A few words about the Dublin postal system, which was remarkable, are in order here. At the turn of the century, Dubliners enjoyed mail service an incredible five times a day. A man could come home from the pub on a Friday night, write his sweetheart a torrid proposal, drop it in the post before the 1:30 a.m. pickup, and pass out. The object of our lad’s affections could then read her paramour’s letter over breakfast, and post her reply with the suggestion that he eat some oysters prior to their rendezvous, and he would get the message with plenty of time to oblige. In an age when email and instant messaging are the norm, this may seem like a slow-motion booty call, but it’s worth noting that telephones were not part of daily life then.
Nora replied to Joyce’s letter and they agreed to meet on the evening of the sixteenth. The couple walked on the south bank of the River Liffey to Ringsend. James later told Nora, “You made me a man” that night. Whether Joyce was speaking literally or figuratively remains a topic of gleeful fascination. Joyce’s private correspondence to Nora, which could be joyously filthy, leaves little to the imagination:
It was you yourself, you naughty shameless girl who first led the way. It was not I who first touched you long ago down at Ringsend. It was you who slid your hand down down inside my trousers and pulled my shirt softly aside and touched my prick with your long tickling fingers and gradually took it all, fat and stiff as it was, into your hand and frigged me slowly until I came off through your fingers, all the time bending over me and gazing at me out of your quiet saintlike eyes.
Because the letter is part of a series of erotically adventurous exchanges between James and Nora that demonstrate an entire catalog of imaginative kink, it would be irresponsible to read this as straight autobiography. Joyce, however, alluded to the event over and over again in his letters, reassuring Nora that he considered the event “a kind of sacrament and the recollection of it fills me with an amazed joy.” He also described their first date in prose. Consider the following scene envisioned by Dedalus as he walks along the strand: “Touch me. Soft eyes. Soft soft soft hand. I am lonely here. O, touch me soon now.” Thus, most Joyceans agree with a wink and a nod that James and Nora’s stroll along the Liffey had a happy ending.
Joyce’s “little death” at Ringsend was, as is so often the case, a new beginning. Less than four months later, Joyce and Nora, both in their early twenties, would leave Ireland and start a new life together on the Continent. Nora did not initiate Joyce into sexual adulthood that fateful summer night (Joyce lost his virginity in a brothel at age fourteen), but his devotion to her was greater than any other passion he had ever known. June 16 was the day upon which his whole life hinged, forever dividing his life into before he met Nora and after. It is the day he left Stephen Dedalus behind and began the process of becoming Leopold Bloom.
The island upon which Ireland sits is roughly the size of Louisiana and is divided into thirty-two counties, four provinces, and two nations. In virtually every city in America, one can find an Irish establishment that alludes to one of these statistics.
Ireland’s 32 is located in the heart of the San Fernando Valley a few miles north of Ventura Boulevard in Van Nuys. It is an Irishman’s bar with Irish bartenders, breakfast, and entertainment (although I’d once seen Robbie Rist, the actor who played Oliver on the Brady Bunch, perform on open mic night).5
“Who, exactly, is this Ulysses person?” Larry asked, his mouth full of bangers and brown sauce.
“Ulysses is the Roman name for the Greek hero Odysseus,” I answered.
“Now who is that again?”
Mack threw his oar in, so to speak. “Odysseus fought with Hector and Achilles during the siege of Troy. He had all kinds of adventures on his journey back to Ithaca.”
“Why is this important?”
“Each chapter in Ulysses is modeled after an episode from The Odyssey.”
“Oh, shit,” Ringo said. “Does this mean we have to read The Odyssey, too?”
“Only if you want.” Musicians are such slackers.
“So,” Larry asked, obviously still confused. “Is Bloom Ulysses or Odysseus or whatever?”
One way to approach the book, I explained, is to think of Bloom as Odysseus, Stephen as Telemachus (Odysseus’ son), and Molly as Penelope (Odysseus’ wife), but it’s best not to get too caught up in this because there are as many discrepancies as there are similarities. For example, Penelope resists her suitors, but Molly shags hers. Odysseus murders his wife’s would-be wooers, yet Bloom is a pacifist. And so on. The late critic Hugh Kenner says it best: “People’s names are what they will answer to at the moment, not a fact to get excited about.”
Part Two opens with Leopold Bloom, and the differences between him and Dedalus are as distinct as the pleasures of intercourse and self-gratification. Dedalus fears dogs. Bloom has a cat. Where Dedalus is scholarly and intellectual, Bloom is tactile and intuits by feeling. Dedalus peers at the world through a magnifying glass, Bloom holds up a mirror. Despite his experience abroad, Dedalus is provincial and self-absorbed, whereas Bloom is fully engaged with the world around him. He is Dean Moriarity to Dedalus’ Sal Paradise.
Molly and Milly, Bloom’s wife and daughter, are his principal preoccupations. Once again, the Royal Mail comes into play. Two letters arrive at Bloom’s doorstep on 7 Eccles Street: one is from Milly, the other is for Molly. He reads the former and delivers the latter, which happens to be from Blazes Boylan, the man who is managing Molly’s upcoming performance and will be calling later in the afternoon. Bloom correctly suspects that Boylan’s intentions are amorous, but chooses instead to brood over the letter from his daughter, who is fifteen years old (the age of consent in Ireland), and beginning to take an interest in the coarser sex. On the cusp of losing his wife’s constancy and his daughter’s unconditional love, Bloom prepares breakfast while the tune “Seaside Girls” tumbles in his head.
Through his ruminations here and in the chapters that follow, we learn a great deal about Bloom. He had a son, Rudy, who died an infant, and his father committed suicide, the ultimate mortal sin in Catholic Ireland. He is a father without a son, a son without a father. The wealth of information about Bloom’s past combined with the immediacy of the present makes it possible to experience the world as Bloom experiences it, feel as Bloom feels. The opening chapters teach us how to read Ulysses, and Bloom is the reader’s reward.
Ulysses is uncommonly funny. Joyce’s critics contend its humor is largely inaccessible to those who aren’t native-born Irish Catholics with a Jesuit education. This is absolute rubbish. Joyce understood that while not all of his readers would have the misfortune of being Irish, they would all be equipped with a body for which a digestive system and sex organs are standard equipment. Joyce possesses the irreverence of a former medical student, where the most intimate and private of bodily functions are exposed, which is another way of saying: if you’re looking for dick and fart jokes, you’ve come to the right place.
When H. G. Wells famously derided Joyce’s “cloacal obsession,” he was perhaps thinking of the last paragraphs of Chapter Four, which take place in an outhouse and contain a generous description of Bloom reading a story in the newspaper while voiding his bowels. When he was finished, “he tore away half the prize story and wiped himself with it.” In the parlance of pub-speak, Joyce is taking a piss out of himself, for the story is a parody of one of his early efforts.
To our great horror, a Doors cover band took the stage at Ireland’s 32. We closed our books, ordered another round, and amused ourselves by converting Jim Morrison’s songs into Irish tunes. “Backdoor Man” became “Backdoor Maggie,” “Light My Fire” turned into “Light My Turf Fire,” and so on. This improved our enjoyment by a factor of a zillion.
“Slainte,” I said when the Guinness arrived.
“What does that mean?” Ringo asked.
Midway through the book a new character emerges: the city of Dublin. It is approximately eleven o’clock and both Bloom and Dedalus are on the move. Bloom commutes by carriage to the cemetery for a funeral with Simon Dedalus, whose son, Stephen, they pass on the way. The younger Dedalus walks to the newspaper offices of the Freeman’s Journal where he will linger long enough to cross paths with Bloom again. We stay with Bloom while he eats a Gorgonzola cheese sandwich and enjoys a glass of burgundy at Davey Byrne’s pub off Grafton Street.6 Dedalus and Bloom nearly run into each other a third time in the National Library where Bloom researches an ad, and a well-soused Stephen delivers an impromptu, yet wildly entertaining, lecture on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Up to this point in the novel, Dedalus and Bloom have kept to themselves, but in Chapter Six they are thrust into Dublin’s public life and compete for our attention with dozens of new characters, most of whom are men with similar-sounding names. In the following chapter, the city of Dublin is given a voice in the form of newspaper headlines that interrupt the flow of the narrative. Bloom returns in Chapter Eight, only to relinquish the role as the novel’s mouthpiece to Dedalus in the next installment. In Chapter Ten, Joyce abandons the notion of a protagonist altogether, and presents nineteen disparate views of Dublin from the perspective of ordinary citizens. Some of these characters are familiar to us, but most are not.
As the chapters lengthened and the characters proliferated like paramecia in a petri dish, it took more time and effort to prepare for our meetings. In short, it was starting to resemble work, and I suspected the Dogsbody group’s early enthusiasm was beginning to wane. Christian, Larry, and Don could be counted upon to come prepared, but they all missed meetings from time to time. Ringo and Mack’s study habits were intermittent at best. Ringo quietly sipped his stout, and when he wasn’t scanning the room for attractive women, he’d get this faraway look that had “ineluctable modality” written all over it. By and large, the group was willing to forgive the occasional lapse. Ringo and Mack were, after all, Dogsbody’s dogsbodies. Many a night they showed up at the pub with grimy jeans and sawdust in their hair.
Mack was a boisterous, trivia-obsessed poet in the Bukowski mold whose academic zenith had been leading his high-school debate team to the state finals. The Dogsbody group, I am fairly certain, had been his idea, but his commitment was not always what it could have been, a fact he tried to conceal by initiating arguments and steering the conversation away from the book. His criticism was harshest when he had no idea what he was talking about, and when we called him on it, he became truculent.
But the ruse wasn’t fooling anyone. Larry’s day job, teaching aspiring felons at the California Youth Authority, made him an expert at separating false bravado from the truth. And Don and I had taught freshman composition, and had cultivated a sixth sense about this sort of thing. A few days after Mack went on a tirade about the translation of the phrase ecce homo, Don called me up to tell me he wouldn’t be able to make it to the next meeting.
“You’re done, aren’t you?”
“Pretty much,” he said.
“Is it Mack?”
“Nothing personal, but I was hoping for something a little more serious.”
I understood. Because Don had to get up ridiculously early in the morning to roast coffee, he did not drink with quite the same zeal as the rest of us. Without the appeal of the pint, Dogsbody proved not very appealing at all. Had Ulysses become an excuse to ogle waitresses and talk shit? Had the pint become the point?
Our problem was twofold. First and foremost, we missed Bloom. The further he recedes from the consciousness of the novel, the more challenging the text becomes. Joyce’s purpose is plain. Moving Dedalus and Bloom to the margins of the narrative let us have a look at the world they live in, and how those who inhabit it regard them. The view is not encouraging. Dedalus is a shabby figure in the street, a wayward son who has fallen in with a “lowdown crowd.” His family’s slide down the socioeconomic ladder is frequently commented upon. Bloom’s Jewishness—he is, quite literally, Dublin’s wandering Jew—makes him the consummate outsider. Bloom may see himself as an Irishman first, a Jew second (or possibly third or fourth behind husband and father), but it is painfully obvious the Dubliners of his day view him as a Jew first and foremost, and as such, a worthy target for their suspicion and enmity. Any conversation about Bloom quickly degenerates to a crude rundown of his wife’s physical charms, and how much they’d like to fuck her.
This is heartbreaking stuff. As these minor characters meet, greet, gossip, and wish one another good day, we get a sense of the fishbowl that was turn-of-the-century Dublin. Although Joyce considered himself an exile long before he left Ireland for good, these chapters help us appreciate why he was so eager to leave. In a letter to his younger brother, Stanislaus, Joyce revealed he would take his revenge by writing “tiny little sentences about the people who betrayed me and sent me to hell.”
Problem number two was more pedestrian, but it was a problem all the same: we were running out of pubs.
Just as Stephen and Bloom wander Dublin, the Dogsbody group drove around Los Angeles in search of the perfect pint and adequate lighting. Because half of us lived in Hollywood, and the other half lived in the Valley, we were not inclined to cross the Maginot line that was Sepulveda Boulevard to sample the Irish pubs on the Westside, for it would have added time to our drive and dollars to our bar tab. So we did what we’d been doing all our lives: we lowered our standards.
Christian suggested an Irish name tacked up on the outside of a drinking establishment was less important than pints of “foamy ebon ale.” The Dogsbody group agreed with the soundness of this logic.
We convened at the Hollywood Athletic Club, which is no longer open to the public, but at the time was an excellent place to shoot pool. The hotness of the waitstaff should have alerted us to the fact we were hopelessly out of our league, and the price of the pints, which they had the audacity to serve in cans, quashed any lingering doubts about our belonging there.
The following week we assembled at the Cat and the Fiddle on Sunset Boulevard. Astute Angelenos will recognize that by darkening the doorway of this particular establishment, we weren’t just lowering our standards, we were burying them in the gutter, for the Cat and the Fiddle is a British pub.
We did not come by this decision capriciously. We made a careful study of the happy-hour menu and made a startling discovery that breathed new life into the Dogsbody group. For a few glorious hours each and every Wednesday night, frothy pints of “that nectarous beverage” could be had for the ridiculously low price of two dollars and fifty cents.
We quietly placed our order, aware that we were in enemy territory. After a respectable length of time that told us the bartenders knew their business, our waitress appeared bearing a platter of perfectly poured pints. Much to our delight, a foamy shamrock crested the head of each of our malty libations. The waitress was a curly-haired redhead and her nametag read “Joyce.” We clinked our glasses together and drank to our good fortune.
“I have a riddle,” Christian announced. “What would Dogsbody be without Guinness?”
We shuddered at the thought.
The “wine of the country” exported from St. James Gate may course through the characters careening around Dublin, but sex, not stout, is what fuels Ulysses. Bloom is unabashedly sexual. He admires a serving girl in the butcher shop (“Pleasant to see first thing in the morning.”). He lusts after an elegant-looking woman as she climbs into a carriage (“Women all for caste till you touch the spot.”). He even thinks about sex while attending a friend’s funeral (“You might pick up a young widow here. Men like that. Love among the tombstones.”). Sex is to Ulysses what murder is to Macbeth.
Sex is Bloom’s principal preoccupation, and for good reason: he knows his wife has scheduled an adulterous assignation with her concert manager, he of the preposterous handle (in more ways than one) Blazes Boylan, and Bloom spends his day dutifully trying not to think about it, which, of course, is impossible. If anything about Bloom can be considered epic, it’s the extent to which he seizes upon every stray thought and passing notion that flits past his consciousness. In this regards, he is like a drowning man clinging to a lifering in high seas.
Boylan, the one citizen in all of Dublin Bloom would most like to avoid, keeps turning up like a bad penny. Every effort made to avoid the man puts Bloom in the cad’s path. This happens not once, not twice, but three times—the same number of times Peter betrayed Jesus before the cock’s crow. Four o’clock, the appointed hour, finds Bloom brooding over what will soon transpire at 7 Eccles Street. A pair of girls who have spent the day at the beach—seaside girls—tend bar. In the adjacent room, men—Simon Dedalus among them—sing to a piano accompaniment. The singing and laughter are punctuated by jingling which only Bloom and Bloom alone can hear. It is the jingling of brass rings on his wife’s bed frame. The scene is a song complete with crescendo, climax, and gushing applause, and the jingling is its motif.
In Ulysses a song is sometimes more than a song. They are narrative entities that Joyce uses to touch on relevant themes. The Irish are equal parts sentimental and nostalgic, and songs function as transport mechanisms for powerful emotions. A famous quote from G. K. Chesterton’s “The Ballad of the White Horse” applies here:
For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad.
One cannot overemphasize the importance of verse and song in a pre-Marconi society. A man who could recite a stirring poem, recall a famous address, or give the fellows a few verses of song was an asset to any gathering. Joyce himself was an accomplished tenor and won a prestigious award for his singing, which at that point in his career was a great deal more substantial than his earnings as a writer.
Bloom sips his cider and shoves off. He knocks about town for a while and ends up at the strand, more or less in the same spot Stephen occupied earlier in the day. Sad, cuckolded Bloom passes the time by watching a trio of seaside girls. One of the girls, Gerty McDowell, leans back to observe a fireworks display, and Bloom can’t help but notice that this causes her skirt to ride up her leg. The farther she leans back, the more she reveals. Bloom can contain himself no longer. Like Molly, the fires of his passion are boiling over:
And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind blank and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely, O, soft, sweet, soft!
This is what got Ulysses into trouble. Even though Joyce wrote this chapter in a style that parodies sentimental novels of the nineteenth century, it’s pretty obvious what Bloom is up to here, and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice found it offensive enough to spur the seizure of the magazine in which the excerpt appeared. Thus, Ulysses was swiftly banned in the United States—even though the book had not yet been published as a single volume.
The Dogsbody group was greatly amused by Bloom’s achievement, and we had our best meeting in weeks. Ineluctable modality be damned—this we understood. Larry was going through an ugly divorce and belonged to that rare breed of musician who couldn’t get laid. Christian was in a loveless marriage and was said to haunt a certain class of massage parlor. Mack may or may not have been in a relationship, but no one was really sure—Mack least of all. Ringo was aggressively single, a strange term for a sexual conquistador. I, for my part, had recently ended a long-distance relationship; self-stimulated fireworks were the norm.
We needed a night like this. Dogsbody was on the ropes. There was even talk of dissolving the group after I told everyone that Don had dropped out. We’d convened at Timmy Nolan’s in an effort to bring back some of the old magic, and Joyce delivered. Inspired by Bloom’s audacity, Mack abandoned our table to join an attractive young woman standing at the jukebox at Timmy Nolan’s. Her hair was short and blonde and her skin was bronzed from a day at the beach—another seaside girl. We watched the two of them, their bodies silhouetted by the light coming off the jukebox. I don’t remember what song was playing, because that would be gag-worthy and lame, but I bet Mack knows.
Although I am happy to report that the members of the Dogsbody group did not engage in violence of any sort before, during, or after our meetings, the same cannot be said of Dedalus and Bloom. Bloom gets chased out of a pub and is nearly struck by a biscuit tin thrown by an angry bigot.7 The violence that befalls Stephen Dedalus is more serious, and it occurs in a chapter a great deal stranger than any of those that precede it. At 150 pages, Chapter Fifteen is by far the longest in the book, and resembles a play with stage directions and dialogue earmarked for specific characters. With a cast of characters numbering in the hundreds and a lurid, phantasmagoric setting, it is like reading the transcript of an erotic fantasy jumbled up with a surrealist collage, and doesn’t appear to make a whole lot of sense.
Set in Dublin’s red-light district, Joyce’s “nighttown” defies explanation. It is a place populated by whores with names like Cunty Kate and Biddy the Clap. Lord Tennyson has a speaking part, as do Shakespeare, Sleepy Hollow, The Sins of the Past, The Daughters of Erin, and Mananaun Mac Lir—the Irish god of the sea. Trying to explain these scenes is like trying to explain Fantasia, or a dream, or an acid trip—in short, never a good idea, because in the telling you reveal more about yourself than the event described.
Here’s what we know: Bloom follows an intoxicated Dedalus into a brothel. Dedalus’ mother, “her face worn and noseless, green with gravemould,” returns from the dead and prays for the salvation of Stephen’s soul—the very act he refused his mother on her deathbed. Stricken with anguish, Dedalus knocks a chandelier down with his ashplant and flees the brothel. Bloom catches up with him in the street, but not before Dedalus picks a fight with a pair of soldiers and gets punched in the face. Bloom, ever the Good Samaritan, stoops to assist and is presented with an idealized vision of his dead son, Rudy.
Joyce abhorred violence, but loved to drink. Brenda Maddox, author of Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce, tells us “Joyce was never at any time in his life a belligerent drunk, but rather a floppy public one. As he weighed so little, he was often carried home by friends and put to bed.” Bloom doesn’t carry Dedalus, but rather leads him to a cab shelter and tries to sober him up with coffee. It’s a long and awkward scene where Dedalus and Bloom chitchat at length about little of consequence. It’s a quiet moment in a book that is full of them. Dedalus bides his time; he has nowhere to go. Bloom, however has already decided what to do next: he will take Dedalus to his home in Eccles Street. He has a room to let, and is already beginning to think of renting it to Dedalus.
The penultimate chapter begins with the journey to Bloom’s home. It is told in the style of a ridiculously detailed catechism. The chapter comprises over three hundred questions and answers. The directness of the questions and the specificity of the responses are suggestive of Kafka minus the totalitarian anxiety. If the nighttown episode is a Buñuel film, the catechism suggests a model-maker’s mania for specificity that would not be out of place in a Wes Anderson vehicle. Midway through the chapter, Bloom invites him to spend the night in his spare bedroom. It is the moment the book has been leading up to, when the proverbial father takes the prodigal son under his wing. Dedalus, for reasons we will never know, declines Bloom’s offer, and departs. Bloom undresses and climbs into bed with Molly. The last question in the series is “Where?” as if to suggest Bloom’s restless imagination needs to know “Where will he spend the night? Where has my son gone?” The question is left unanswered.
Ulysses ends where Dogsbody began. The previous June, Mack and I had gone to Molly Malone’s for a performance of selected monologues from the last chapter in Ulysses. We’d spent the day at the Irish fair at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, and the bar’s dark and dewy gloom was just what we needed. The tables had been cleared out and rows of folding chairs set-up before a makeshift stage. We arrived late, but managed to sit in the front. The props were as follows: a bed, a sheet, and a cotton shift. The actress was amazing to listen to, to watch, to be in the same room with, and her performance changed the way I think about Irish linen.
Molly’s monologue is the most accessible part of Ulysses. With Dedalus you get “ineluctable modality,” with Molly you get Rodney Dangerfield ejaculating “Yes!” in a lecture hall like Marv Albert at Madison Square Garden. Where Dedalus’ pompous profusions attract the attention of the Harold Blooms of the world, Molly endears herself to the kind of scholar who enjoys skinny-dipping and smoking hash, has sex on rooftops and strong opinions about chocolate. I hate to think what modern literature would be like without her. Yet it is somewhat ironic that Molly has come to represent the zenith of female sexuality, for the day she beds Boylan marks the tenth year, fifth month, and eighteenth day since she has had sexual relations with her husband. This date coincides exactly with the death of her baby boy, Rudy. If anyone in this story is entitled to a happy ending, it’s Molly.
Early in the novel, the six of us planned to celebrate the completion of the book with a great feast of boiled meats, buttered spuds and, of course, truckloads of sweetly lubricious stout. It never happened. We met at the Cat and the Fiddle and congratulated each other halfheartedly, because we all secretly doubted the man seated next to us had actually finished the book. For some reason, I became the target.
“Tell the truth,” Ringo cajoled, “you didn’t read the whole thing, did you?”
“You’re right,” I said. “In fact, I’ve never read it and don’t plan to.”
It was that kind of night.
Many of the criticisms leveled at Ulysses are similar to the complaints people make about baseball. The season is too long. The rules are too complicated. The minutiae are overwhelming. You show them a box score and they see a cipher, an enigma. They do not understand the ambiguity of a fielder’s choice or the capriciousness of the ground-rule double. They listen to Vin Scully and hear math.
In spite of all this, it’s possible to take an Irishman who has never been to a baseball game to the ballpark, and with a few hundred words and some judicious pointing, teach him everything he needs to know to enjoy the game. He’ll have questions from time to time, and it will be necessary to disabuse him of some curious notions caused by his exposure to cricket, but if he understands and enjoys the notion of sport, he will “get” baseball.
On the way home from the ballpark, our Irishman (let’s call him Trevor) listens to an interview on the radio with the winning pitcher. He’s answering questions about how he set up the batters with fastballs and came back with sliders. He talks about movement, control, jamming the batter. Trevor understands virtually none of this. In fact, he could watch baseball for the rest of his life and he would never understand the mechanics of pitching the way this pitcher does. Then a curious thing happens: instead of becoming frustrated and changing the station, the awareness of not understanding heightens his appreciation and enriches Trevor’s enjoyment of the game.
And so it is with Ulysses. On the first page, Joyce employs snippets of Latin and Greek, a curse from the Middle Ages, and a nickname with its roots in Irish slang, none of which is necessary to know that we are reading, as is typically the case when Buck Mulligan is in a scene, a burlesque. Further, the process of ferreting out the significance of the references and teasing meaning from the allusions saps all the joy from the reading experience. In her essay in The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce, Jennifer Levine sagely advises, “Sometimes the need to know what everything ‘means’ in Ulysses should be resisted.”
The Dogsbody group found this easy advice to follow. If Joycean scholars were rotisserie geeks, we were the bleacher bums of Irish literature. Ultimately, we enjoy going to baseball games for the same reasons we enjoy reading novels: it is an entertaining diversion, an earnest distraction, a relaxing way to lose one’s self in another world for a few hours. It didn’t matter if we missed a few at bats. Who’s at the plate? Why are they changing pitchers? We didn’t know, nor did we need to. We were content to sit back, have a few beers, and enjoy the game.
What became of the Dogsbody group?
Christian gave up acting and became a full-time academic. After earning a master’s degree in history at Cal State Northridge he separated from his wife, for which he blames Dogsbody, and returned to his alma mater in Wisconsin to pursue his doctorate. Ringo bounced around Europe for a while, but is back in L.A., chasing his rock-star dreams. The zine Don worked for folded, so he started his own and it’s going strong. Larry, when last not heard from, was doing odd jobs in Redondo Beach, but that was a long time ago. Mack doesn’t write poetry anymore, but he bought a house and punches a clock for the L.A. County Department of Public Works. He has a son now, who calms and completes him in a way I never would have imagined possible. He has crossed over from Dedalus to Bloom. I am his son’s godfather—a solemn and terrific honor—but I’m not very good at it. I’m biding my time until the lad is old enough to drink. I’ll take him to Timmy Nolan’s, show him the spot where his old man accosted his mother, plonk a copy of Ulysses on the table, and tell him the oldest story I know.
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