Notes on “Big Cactus,” a Novel by Sylvia Wilkinson

In his third essay in Anatomy of Criticism, “Theory of Myths,” Northrop Frye places irony and satire in the “Mythos of Winter”:

As structure, the central principle of ironic myth is best approached as a parody of romance: the application of romantic mythical forms to a more realistic content which fits them in unexpected ways. No one in a romance, Don Quixote protests, ever asks who pays for the hero’s accommodation. (223)

But if someone does ask, tell them, “Aunt Lucy.”

The aging Lucy, accused of being at risk of not being able to take care of herself and forced into “the county home,” sweet-talks (in a manner of speaking) her teenage nephew, Benny, into a road trip in his pickup truck, a 1965 GMC. Lucy wants to satisfy her Holy Grail vision of seeing the Big Cactus at sunset, a quest suggested by something she’s seen in a magazine, Arizona Highways.

Benny is at risk of becoming a responsible adult and has dreams of someday becoming a NASCAR mechanic, but for now he’s stuck telling a story about his trip driving his Aunt Lucy and his dog, Polar, from North Carolina across the southern states to Arizona and back, a distance of some 4,000 miles of mixed terrain and worry in an old pickup, stopping in towns along the way, sleeping nights in motels and eating in restaurants, encountering a host of characters and trials of travel episodes. Benny falls for a waitress but must get back on the road, but Sue Faye is just a prelude to his own unrequited quest which develops on the run with Aunt Lucy, Polar, and the rich Tennessee, another road rescue.

In his This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley explains why aspiring authors might want to avoid a first person narrative their first time out. If you’ve ever tried ocean wave surfing, you probably know it’s best not to try to stand up on your first wave. Ride the foam to shore in the prone position, getting the feel of the surfboard on the water. But

I’ve tried to do a story in my mind about what happened to me (231),

Benny says, and besides, Sylvia Wilkinson knows what she’s doing when it comes to writing a novel. Big Cactus is her seventh, and she’s a master of the first person narrative.

Big Cactus features characters revealed through dialog and action. “What’s a body for?” Judith Butler asks in Astra Taylor’s film Examined Life. Big Cactus features comparisons and contrasts between wealth and poverty, the old and the young, their aspirations and problems, their ideas of love and the needs of the body, how they present themselves in public and to one another in private, how they communicate – “for better, for worse.”

Big Cactus is a kind of picaresque, quixotic novel, where two main characters play off one another as separate halves of a single protagonist. They get in one another’s way as opposites but share a symbiotic relationship in a shared endeavor as outsiders against some social antagonist. Think of Huck and Jim, or Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, of Estragon and Vladimir.

Sylvia’s new book is a marvel of vernacular. The wit and humor is layered with carefully constructed confusion between what the reader sees and what the characters see, between what one character thinks is happening and what their foil character thinks. In the end, it’s Benny’s story, another marvel – of opposites between first person narrator and author. But Benny is a close observer, and as he says of himself,

I say a bunch of things out loud I ought to just think. (125)

That might be a good definition of a novelist. Gifts are a theme throughout the book. Benny has the gift of storytelling, a gift presented by Sylvia to the reader.

Joe and the Peace Truck April 1970_4151572268_mNo, that’s not Benny and that’s not a 1965 GMC. That’s me and my 1949 Ford pickup truck that my Dad bought me for $200 from a nearby motor pool. In the photo, if you look close, you can see the white tip of my surfboard hanging over the tailgate. I’ve just returned from a rescue trip up to Zuma Beach, towing my friend’s old, tiny BMW back home. My memory isn’t perfect here, but I think it was a BMW 700 convertible. It broke down in Zuma and we drove up to tow it back, pulling it with a rope from Zuma down to the South Bay along the Pacific Coast Highway, a distance of about 30 miles, but towing with the rope was probably illegal, required someone to stay in the disabled BMW to brake it at stops, and a smooth clutch operator in the truck with its three-speed on the column. Certainly not a novel in that story, probably not even a short story, unless Benny had been along for the ride.

Give me my good old American truck any day of the year (89),

Benny says. Now there’s some irony ole Northrop Frye might have enjoyed.

Big Cactus, a novel by Silvia Wilkinson. 2014. Owl Canyon Press: Boulder, Colorado.

Update, Dec 20, 2015: A review of “Big Cactus” in the Fall 2015 issue of Blackbird.