Have you seen the Drunk Uncle skit on Saturday Night Live? A Weekend Update visitor played—or perhaps truer to say inhabited—by Bobby Moynihan, Drunk Uncle is a cringe-inducing wonder. New Englandy Fair Isle sweater worn under a windbreaker, lowball glass in hand, hair askew, he steers an innocent reference to sports into racist territory—“Are you ready for some baseball? And eventually some hockey?” “I think it’s football.” “Someone’s gotta watch the white sports”—and moves seamlessly between mangled cultural references and sexual innuendo: “Is that Amazon Prime pumpkin-spiced? You know who’s got a couple of spicy pumpkins? That Sophia Viagra.” Drunk Uncle follows this up by singing “Blurred Lines” and commenting, “The only blurred line I know is our border with Me-hee-co” before beginning to weep.
“All you’re describing is the personality of a translator,” a chic Spanish poet says to the narrator of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station when he comments on her preternatural grace as she moves between worlds.
Drunk Uncle has the personality of a translator.
The wonders of Drunk Uncle remained unknown to me until I read “Say Uncle” by Mike Scalise on The Paris Review website. During my tenure as nonfiction editor at The Southern Review I did not have the chance to publish Mike, a major regret. I bring him up because his work is the kind of work I thrill to: funny, sharp, complex, critical but with a genuine warmth. His essays look outward and inward. They introduce me to the delights of things like Drunk Uncle and they introduce me to new parts of myself.
Mike wades into this messy, ridiculous world we live in—and into the messy, ridiculous business of being stuck within the confines of our human selves—and brings back the news. He moves easily between object and idea, humor and depth, immediacy and reflection. He has the personality of a translator, by which I don’t mean slurring and weeping into his bourbon, though if he did I would love his work no less. What I mean is “translator” in the sense suggested by Ben Lerner’s graceful Spanish poet, who in that scene, which takes place at a high-class party in a swanky house outside Madrid, sheds her clothes to reveal a bathing suit and dives gracefully (how else?) into a pool. A person who moves easily between modes.
A good example, which I hope will send you off to read the essay:
What makes Moynihan’s Drunk Uncle so brilliant isn’t just the inappropriateness or the one-liners (though they certainly help). It’s his ability to tap into something inherently lost within the poor guy. Moynihan’s Drunk Uncle, like so many real life uncles, is a man without a time, a symphony of confused identity, raging against his displacement from both parental and youth culture, a failed way station between the two.
My own drunk uncle, a slick LA-type, was married to my cool aunt (for a while, anyway). He inhaled whiskey, collected wind-up toys, and convinced me at age five that the best way to get rid of my loose front tooth was to let him punch the thing out of my mouth. I’m not saying I want to be that kind of uncle to Crosby. Not even close. What I’m saying is that the netherland of the uncle can yield useful things, such as a kid’s first real opportunity to flat-out dislike a grown-up. . . . This doesn’t apply to all uncles, of course. I’ve found in my adult years that a majority of mine are surprising, fascinating guys. But at even five years old, I was shocked at how unconflicted I felt as I watched my bloody front tooth hit my drunk uncle’s linoleum, thinking something not unlike Wow, this guy: grade-A dickface. Yet even if I didn’t realize it then, he proved himself in that moment a helpful primer; a durable example of the type of person I later knew to steer clear of.
See what I mean? That’s what I want as a reader: the news. The real news. The news I can’t get anywhere else. The news as brought to us by Drunk Uncle, singing Robin Thicke and crying into his bourbon.
In 2008 I joined the editorial staff of The Southern Review and spent close to five years there, first as managing editor, then as fiction and nonfiction editor, and ultimately as co-editor of the magazine. While publishing Mike Scalise will remain a dream, in those years I did have the pleasure of editing many other stellar essayists, including Bonnie Jo Campbell, Ted Sanders, Caitlin Horrocks, Abe Streep, Albert Goldbarth, and Aisha Sabatini Sloan. Their work is diverse, but to a person they, too, have the personality of a translator. The essays I chose at The Southern Review move easily between modes.
The novel is capacious—of course, of course—but so is the essay. In a way it ranges more freely. I mean, sure, you have Moby Dick and War and Peace, but how many modern novels contain taxonomies and treatises?
But the essay: well, now we’re talking.
In the “The Playroom,” Ted Sanders maps his childhood playroom in a very local geographical memoir. Megan Snyder-Camp’s “The Skelleton of this Monster on the Sand” draws from Lewis and Clark’s journals, interspersing quotations and lines of her own poetry. Aisha Sabbatini Sloan’s “The Strong Man and the Clown” ranges widely in subject: Fellini, the Venice Biennale, whales, Pinocchio, the experience of growing up in an interracial family, intergenerational estrangement. I read her essay and want to go watch Fellini; I read the essay and begin to ask myself difficult questions:
In Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, Giulietta Masina’s character dreams that a man in a red robe is whispering to her. He asks her to help him drag a rope from the ocean. She looks up to see a boat full of people with strange markings. A black man with a beard stands in profile, holding a sword, and he looks back at the beach toward her. In another dream, a door opens to a room full of people frozen in time. There is a black man, dreadlocked hair held by sticks in what looks to be a Japanese bun, a white woman with white face paint, a short white man in his underwear with his mouth open, women in veils. I wonder how blackness lived in my grandfather’s subconscious. If one kind of blackness ever held the place of another.
Another great and capacious essay than I chose for The Southern Review is Albert Goldbarth’s “Annals of Absence,” later selected as Poetry Daily’s prose feature. The essay moves from Chauvet Cave’s thirty-two-thousand-year-old paintings to that grimly nutty German existentialist Werner Herzog to Wordsworth to the death of Albert’s colleague, Peggy Rabb. Take in the leap here, the translation from the hand visible to our eye to a hand as seen by physics:
Absence. . . . I look at my hand, this hand that’s writing with a Bic pen in an everyday dime-store notebook, and was scraped along its outer edge when it tried to brace against a fall the other day (it looks like gray-tinged bacon), and was tended to by my wife, with soap and water, antiseptic cream, a Band-Aid, and a touch of spousal sympathy from her hand, just as light as a moth-wing's brush. However, I’ve read enough in lay texts on twentieth-century physics to know between the atoms, and in the atoms, this hand is mainly empty air: a tiny spritz of elements held in an overwhelming void.”
The hand reoccurs though the essay: Albert’s hand, Peggy’s hand waving goodbye, “palm out, her fingers extended, something like a star a child would draw,” the handprints in the cave. The final line encompasses them all: “The hand is here because it isn’t.”
These essayists make translation look easy. That’s one thing I like about them. Another: they also know where translation—of objects, of personal experience—fails. They send us back to the world to look again. They send us back to ourselves to look again. They translate with the knowledge that no translation is perfect.
Unless, of course, it’s done by Drunk Uncle.
Cara Blue Adams’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Narrative, The Missouri Review, Epoch, The Sun, The Kenyon Review, The Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. In addition, her nonfiction appears in The Little Magazine in America: A Contemporary Guide (University of Chicago Press, 2014) and Ploughshares. She has been named one of Narrative’s “15 Below 30” and awarded The Kenyon Review Short Fiction Prize and has received fellowship and scholarship support from the VCCA, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Until this year, she co-edited The Southern Review. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Coastal Carolina University.