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Reading Percival Everett

 | 
Claude Julien
, 
Anne-Laure Tissut

III. To Live ... to Die, and to Keep Laughing

Follow Your Heart” (NBC, 1990): The Mirage of an Adaptation of Percival Everett’s 1985 novel Walk Me to the Distance

Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris

Résumé

The problem with the word adaptation is that it implies —or should imply— some kind of coherent vision or revision (which is most often the case) of an original narrative but Noel Nosseck’s made-for-TV movie adapted from Percival Everett’s Walk Me to the Distance obviously lacks the unicity of structure and vision of the text. Once on screen, there seems to be little trace of the literary hero’s self- imposed imperative “Go West, young man!” when the latter finds out he can no longer call Georgia home upon returning from Vietnam. Nor is there much left of his near-Frontier experience when he gets involved in the backwoods lynching of a rapist in Wyoming —except, maybe, in the rather long introductory “Big Sky country” sequence of the television film and in its rather weak echo of the Frontier Code of its inhabitants. The essay will therefore take a close look at Nosseck’s adaptation choices and show how the protagonist’s original journey through an internalized and phantasmagorical West has been notably altered and thwarted.

Texte intégral

1The problem with the word adaptation is that it implies —or should imply— some kind of coherent vision or revision (which is most often the case) of an original narrative or, let us say, of a narrative which somehow came first. Of course, as movie specialist Linda Seger insists in The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film:

2By its very nature, adaptation is a transition, a conversion from one medium to another. All original material will put up a bit of a fight, almost as if it were saying, “Take me as I am.” Yet adapting implies change. It implies a process that demands rethinking, reconceptualizing, and understanding how the nature of drama is intrinsically different from the nature of all other literature. (2)

3But precisely, the core of the problem lies in the scope and the depth of the “change” actually involved in the adaptation process. Percival Everett’s Walk Me to the Distance found its way to television screens barely five years after it was published. And the film’s own title, “Follow Your Heart”, only proves to be one of the major differences with the novel. Noel Nosseck’s made-for-TV movie somehow circumvents the call for help, in an effort to reach an aim, contained in the original title. And it is obvious from the opening sequences onward that the unicity of structure and vision of the text happen to be missing from the script and film. There is little trace of the young hero’s self-imposed imperative “Go West, young man!” when the latter finds out he can no longer call Georgia home upon returning from war in Vietnam. Nor is there much left of his near-Frontier experience when he gets involved in the backwoods lynching of a rapist in Wyoming —except, maybe, in the rather long introductory “Big Sky country” sequence of the television film and in its rather weak echo of the Frontier Code of its inhabitants. Limiting the scope of the western’s mythical heritage to one collective murder, David Larson makes this somewhat simplistic statement to his friend Howard, “Now, that’s fucking Frontier’s justice and it’s anybody’s justice.”

4Wyoming, the people and the place, become the locus of self-education in the novel, but the book’s specific sense of place virtually disappears in the film. The mythical heritage of the West is reduced to its simplest visual and symbolical expression. No real representation and deconstruction of the narrative’s fantasized West is ever fully explored in the adaptation as the villain isn’t the ranch owner’s retarded son, but some ageing Vietnam veteran turned for the occasion into a convenient, common cinema rapist-sinner. In other words, there is no real journey through this internalized West of self-exploration and settlement. Of course, faithfulness to the written source is a sterile debate and there are much deeper objections to the filmic representation as the whole logic of reconstructing a phantasmagorical West is simply not there on screen.

The meaning of place

5Both the book and the film’s openings deal with the sense of home. What does it mean to feel and be at home, especially after Vietnam’s major geographical, emotional and psychological displacement, or, quite literally, dis-location? Actually, the same obsession with the definition as well as the implications of returning home are at work in both works. The novel’s preliminary quote from Grayson Silas at the beginning of Walk Me to the Distance reads: “Home is always recognizable, though eyes may never have been set upon it”. These words find a direct echo in the first chapter’s negative description of the protagonist’s ordinariness, or rather fecklessness:

It wasn’t that David Larson returned home from Vietnam to find that his girl had taken up with another man; he didn’t have a girl when he left.... he didn’t come emotionally or mentally scarred, suffering from flashbacks or a fear of thin people on bicycles. He returned as unremarkable as he had been when he left... Just a soldier, a man without the courage, the conviction or cowardice to have run north to Montreal or Toronto. (3)

6Larson then, is essentially defined by what he is not and by, somehow, the absence and emptiness at the core of his being. On screen, the voice-over narration device also emphasizes a state of void, a quest for something left unidentified; but the character is a former Marine, not a college drop out who joined the army, he later quips, “to protect the American way of life.” (18). And this returning Marine is a far more conventional “hero” in so far as the voice-over is deprived of the irony at work in the novel:

When I got out of the Marines and home wasn’t home anymore, I headed west to blow some steam, chase a few jack rabbits. Hoping to find something, some way of living that seemed to have got lost somewhere along the way.

7The thoughts attributed to David by the voice-over much resemble Ishmael’s in Moby Dick’s opening chapter “Loomings”:

Whenever I find myself grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul... then I account it is high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.... I quietly take to the ship. (Melville, 93)

8So that, at least at the outset of both novel and film, the sense of place remains indefinite, still projected somehow into the future of this journey through the Wild West. It remains tentative, about to be defined in the course of the novel, so as to become what Eudora Welty defines as “place”:

Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been left, is about to be experienced, in the novel’s progress. (Welty, 122)

9Except that, very early on, as it grows more and more specific, place relates more to mock-epic mechanisms than anything else. In the filmic narrative, “Big Sky” cowboy country is referred to as “a pretty God-forsaken blowhole” by Chloe Sixbury, a Wyoming sheep-ranch owner. As her friend, veterinary Howard, comments, “Not a lot of people can take a place like this one unless they’re born to it.” Place is then locally defined at once by a sense of belonging and some sort of geographical determinism somehow consistently bringing the individual back to the harsh reality of this western “terrain” which makes for a surprisingly “comfortable” home:

In all, David was happy. He’d found a home. He liked the people and he loved the terrain. (37)

10The movie rather ponderously insists on the communal spirit the place automatically generates: the picnic gathering all the members of the community as David and Sixbury welcome the abandoned little girl on the property is one of the most obvious signs of this heavy insistence. But as the main protagonist gets eventually and literally stuck in Slut’s Hole, his itinerary is eventually cut short.

11Part of Percival Everett’s narrative precisely focuses on this point: how to continue with one’s journey while remaining on location because of a car breakdown. David’s story structures itself precisely around the fact that he is no longer on the move —to his own great surprise. As his friend Mitch the mechanic tells him:

“Cowboys named it and the name ain’t never been changed.”
“Why Slut’s Hole?”
“Because everybody comes here and then they leave. That’s the story anyway.”(5)

12But David comes and stays. He “was stunned that he was staying” (16) specifies the narrative voice, as if constructing his identity had to do with some sort of appropriation, not so much of the land as by the land. To be owned by it is at once to belong, and simply, to be. Somehow, it seems to condition the expression of a new set of feelings and sense of comfort:

David looked at the bright, full moon. “Staying here just feels like the right move.”

13A statement Howard laconically approves with home-felt wisdom:

“It’s important to pay attention to those feelings.” (21)

14Obviously, one of the major problems with the film adaptation is that it veers toward an incorrect interpretation of the word “feelings” and selects immediately the sentimental track. In one of the film’s central sequences, David and ranch-owner Sixbury have an intimate conversation while Butch, the little Asian girl David “found” and brought home is asleep next door. The love declaration which was only indirectly addressed to Sixbury in the book becomes here a direct address:

“You know I —I never had much feeling about the family one way or the other. Until now.”
“If s O.K., cowboy. She’s a child. Nature demands that we love’m. No matter how tough life is made up.”
“Yeah, that’s it. And if you were one hundred years younger, I’d marry you.”
“Yeah, and if I was one hundred years younger, I might let you.”

15This somewhat crude sentimentalism is over-exploited on screen, as if providing some sort of counterpoint to Big Sky country harsh and cruel life conditions.

The Frontier code

16For David then, the West seems to become literally a place of settlement and commitment, as settling down necessarily implies making one’s commitment to the community —that is to say to the law of the land. The central event at the heart of both the filmic and literary narrative is the abrupt disappearance of Sixbury’s retarded son, Patrick. It reads like the outward sign of the disruption of order brought about by David’s intrusion into the community in the book, paralleled by David and Butch’s arrival in the movie. This is probably the major structural variation between the two narratives, as in Percival Everett’s source novel, the little girl’s appearance is consequent on Patrick’s running away and the breakdown of Sixbury’s family unit. Her proleptic words about her son mark the birth of an entirely different family circle: “Sometimes I hate him. Sometimes I have no children.” (70)

17These words also materialize the moment of crisis disrupting the precarious balance between the old and new units as the two disappearances are structurally linked in the novel, while they are only apparently related in the film (where Patrick is eventually cleared of any rape charge, and the search party on horseback evinces a splendid fraternal spirit in a spectacular Wyoming landscape). Here, the posse’s organization and mortal pursuit functions in inverse proportion to the narrative. Everett has the killing scene materialize the moment of doubt and truth of the armed riders while they symbolically set out to extract the root of evil by lynching Patrick in some sort of tragic logic which cannot be put into words:

It didn’t take a lot to figure out that Patrick was at the root of this. Find Patrick, find the child. But no one said anything about the retarded boy; his name was not mentioned. The men were armed. (119)

18The movie’s dissociation of Patrick’s character from Hraboy’s, a sick Vietnam veteran, conveniently propped as the sinner here, leads to a glamorization of the communal murder and of the Frontier code. Patrick, the idiot but angelic son of the West, shoots down the rapist, thus considerably simplifying the original story line where Hraboy was a mere participant in the punitive raid against the monster in their midst. As David eventually says to his scared friend Howard in the film:

“Howard, what’s the problem? ... [Patrick] killed a sick maniac. Probably even in self-defense. Now that’s fucking Frontier’s justice and it’s anybody’s justice.”

19Katy Lowe, the posse leader’s daughter, also artificially rationalizes and moralizes the whole adventure when David tells her the truth:

“Craig Hraboy has been a sickness in this town for over twenty years and everybody’s known it.... Patrick saw him and Patrick’s lucky to be alive because, given a chance, Craig would have killed him.”

20Somehow then, moral corruption becomes an official license to kill and shifts the moral responsibility of evil from the men back to the lonesome figure of Hraboy, the outsider-rapist. Such a cinematographic choice considerably weakens the self-questioning session David and his co-executioners Hraboy and Lowe go through in the novel:

[Sixbury’s] strength moved him. He almost cried. He was a murderer, and the major well of guilt in this was that he felt no remorse.... The most frightening element of it all was that, even with the grotesque image of the retarded man bound and dangling, the action was somehow beautiful. (131)

21It is as if the wilderness of this strange land had somehow imprinted a new set of rules and code of conduct on the newcomer, somehow erasing all previous categories. The geographical decontextualization reflects the moral one, thus favoring the stranger’s inclusion in the group and reinforcing the reader’s sense of David’s painful bending to the local code after spontaneously shooting at the fleeing Patrick:

“He suddenly felt that he had been dropped down on this prairie in the dark without a point of reference.” (198)

22In other words, the story itself becomes an uncharted, virgin territory, as if adopting this new code became the inevitable answer to the adaptation process and the price to pay for living in such a ruthless land. David’s new way of living somehow literalizes the metaphorical riddle of the mad preacher he encounters: “Life upon this earth is warfare. ... Book of Job. This life is a constant fight.” (201)

23It is this aspect of elemental and truly essential struggle which the filmic narrative circumvents —erases— by eventually closing on family bliss images.

Reconstructed family and community circles: the end of the western quest?

  • 1 The novel is wholly different as it ends on the probable suicide of Sixbury who has become invalid (...)
  • 2 On the contrary, the narrative voice insists on David’s self-questioning, as shown by the song he h (...)

24One of the (many) problems with the film is that, reflecting David’s limited range of questioning, it sacrifices as well to whatever (meager) Hollywood conventions it retains —mainly a highly conventional happy ending (the camera dutifully tracks at the end a happy four-member family going about its activities in the ranch’s golden light suggesting the restful peace of the coming night).1 The novel’s deconstruction of the mythical West is thus skirted: the questionable enforcement of a ruthless Frontier code is consequently brushed aside2 as being problematic, as is the sense (in all possible meanings of the term from direction to significance and validity) of the quest itself. For what the novel never really “explains” but nevertheless leaves suspended is precisely the shape of the quest as well as its import. As David eventually tells Josh he’s picked for “the honest man” figure:

“I feel incredibly lost. Not confused, really. I feel—I don’t know. I wonder if I’m a bad man.”
“If you have to wonder, chances are you’re not.” (206)

25With this tentative answer bearing the seal of uncertainty and moral ambiguity, David’s ontological search is left unresolved, just like Butch’s desire to walk as far as the horizon and her emblematic question to Sixbury:

“Can we walk to the distance?”
“We can try, but, no, we can’t get there.”
“Why?”
“Well, the distance is always the same.” (174)

26Distance is never relative, it’s there —constant— like the community in this harsh environment.

27Perhaps the only redeeming feature about Nosseck’s adaptation of Walk Me to the Distance is its use of preachers and sermons. After the men on the lynching party have gone about their mortal business, all gather together at church for the final sermon:

“The thing about this country is that it’s relentless. It goes on and on with this enormous sky. We trust God and we have to trust man. We have no choice. And so we have to trust each other. There comes a time when people have to make decisions that are very difficult.”

28Meanwhile, the camera pans from one posse member to another as they silently look at each other. Thus, potential “wrongdoing”, if not downright evil as in the literary source, is partly connected to the overpowering strength of Nature, even though essentially linked to the individual. In Percival Everett’s fiction, however, the bond between Nature and men as a group remains central as the images of the reunited congregation show. Tragedy does not spring from one individual’s sin or hubris, but from a collective source. And in the narrative, the post-Vietnam War era certainly takes center stage in this representation of some national guilt complex. The force of evil depends on the human factor but is somehow mitigated by the power of Nature. Significantly, the book’s preacher distinguishes between the two categories of Good and Evil:

“There are bad things,” he said, “and there are evil things in this world. But the bad thing need not be evil. A bad thing need not be wrong. Many a right action is unpleasant. God judges us as much by our intentions as by our deeds. Here, in this harsh environment, we must be men. Even our women must be men.” (136)

29The novel’s preacher invites probing into the national post-Vietnam psyche while the one on the screen mostly insists on trusting God and the local community. Everett’s novel goes beyond that conventional cowboy logic and personal quest, and possibly redefines the western heritage as functional only on communal terms and grounds precisely because of the overpowering western landscape. David Larson’s private search does not really come to an end, it just is. It has just turned strangely static. Even his questions to Sixbury find no definite answer:

“So why am I here?” Sixbury just looked at him. “From Indochina to Slut’s Hole, Wyoming. Two places that as a child I didn’t know existed. It must be fate. It’s odd.”
“Well, I suppose it
is odd,” she said, “but just odd.” (84)

30Noel Nosseck’s 1990 television film typically reflects the kind of drastic cuts and “alterations” imposed on literary texts by today’s cinema and television industry. It also highlights by contrast the peculiar revisitation of the Frontier myth in the original text which retains an entirely different type of internal coherence. A coherence that Everett, after such painful cinematic experiences, has now vowed to protect, always and most notably from what he calls in Callaloo, an “army of liberal book-readers [which] marches into stores and feeds on fad and trend and reads, but not too deeply, and so does to our work what the movies seek to do.” (1991, 10)

Bibliographie

Works Cited

Everett, Percival. 1985. Walk Me to the Distance. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

—. “Signing to the Blind”. Callaloo 14.1 (1991) 9-11.

Melville, Herman. 1972 (1852). Moby Dick. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.

Nosseck, Noel. 1990. “Follow Your Heart.” TV film adapted from Percival Everett’s novel Walk Me to the Distance, and produced by NBC.

Seger, Linda. 1992. The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Welty, Eudora. 1987 (1978). The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews. London: Virago.

Notes

1 The novel is wholly different as it ends on the probable suicide of Sixbury who has become invalid after a stroke. To her perhaps, this is another aspect of the code of the West, death meaning dignity.

2 On the contrary, the narrative voice insists on David’s self-questioning, as shown by the song he hums in his sister’s home: “If you want to go to heaven, / I’ll tell you what to do. / Gotta stick your feet in mutton stew. / Slip on out of the devil’s hand / And over to the promised land. / Take it easy — go greasy.” (145)
His Savannah visit after receiving the money he has inherited from the sale of his dead parents’ home is the moment when he realizes there is nothing left for him back East: “David wanted to leave, get into a taxi, and then a plane pointed west.” (153)

Auteur

Specialises in African American literature. She is Full Professor of American Literature and Cinema at Rouen University. Her books, among which Toni Morrison. Women’s Portraits, Paris 4-Sorbonne Press, 1996, A Streetcar Named Desire [Williams; Kazan], Editions Ellipses, 2003, and Dracula [Stoker; Coppola], Editions Atlande, 2006, mostly focus on contemporary Afro-American Literature and screen adaptations. She is also currently working on a book soon to be published by CinemAction on American horror movies as well as on articles on the semiotics of filmic images and Anglo-Saxon literature at large.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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