Love In the Shrubbery
Some of you will be familiar with my oft-repeated praises of Sid Perelman. Sadly, unless you’re a subscriber to The New Yorker and have access to its archives or you own Perelman’s work in book form, you can’t read his work. I’m away until September but as a last service to readers before I go, I decided to post some Perelman so that those of you who are unfamiliar with his work can get a notion of why I like him so much. This is a piece from the 40s:
White Bimbo, Or, Through Dullest Africa With Three Sleepy People
Take one thing with another, there are few places I know better than the heart of Africa.
Set me down in Bechuanaland or the Cameroons and I will find my way home with less difficulty than I would from Rittenhouse Square or Boylston Street. My entire youth, in a sense, was spent on the Dark Continent. By the time I was eleven, I was probably the world’s foremost authority on the works of Sir H. Rider Haggard, or at least the foremost eleven year-old authority in Providence, Rhode Island. My impersonation of Allan Quatermain tracking down a spoor was so exact and so forthright that a popular movement sprang up amongst my fellow-citizens to send me to Mombasa. I was, however, not quite ready for Mombasa and begged off. At fifteen, I could quote Livingstone and Paul Du Chaillu so glibly that my sponsors revived their project, this time offering to send me to Tanganyika. It became a sort of good-humoured tug of war to get me out of New England. I don’t want to sound chesty, but I suppose I’ve done more harm to Africa in my day than Cecil Rhodes.
It came as a pang, therefore, to learn that my achievement had been overshadowed by that of a complete unknown, a person whose name occurs in no encyclopedia or reference work on Africa. Armand Brigaud may well be a familiar figure in the Explorers Club, and he can probably be found any afternoon at the National Geographic Society swapping yarns with William Beebe and Burton Holmes. Frankly, I never heard of him until yesterday, when I picked up a yellowing copy of a pulp magazine called Jungle Stories and read his novelette, Killers On Safari. Though it costs me an effort, I shall give the man his due. In Killers On Safari, Armand Brigaud has written finis to the subject of Africa. After him, the deluge. Me, I’ll have a double deluge with very little soda, please.
To be quite candid, the safari the author describes in his title is about as exciting as a streetcar journey from Upper Darby to Paoli, and his flora and fauna suggest the lobby display accompanying a Monogram jungle film. What lifts Killers On Safari from the ruck is a cast of characters out of Daisy Ashford by Fenimore Cooper, with Superman acting as accoucheur. Their adventures are recorded in some of the most stylish prose to flow out of an inkhorn since Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona. The people of Mr. Brigaud’s piece, beset by hostile aborigines, snakes, and blackwater fever, converse with almost unbearable elegance, rolling out their periods like Edmund Burke. Here, for example, Diana Patten and Walter Huntley, a couple of the characters, in a sylvan glade, as their porters take a short breather:
A coarse forest pig shuffled out of a ravine and began nibbling on a bamboo root. The shapely hand of Diana Patten made a getsure that encompassed the whole scene as she said softly: ‘These beasts of the wilderness know when it is safe for them to come near the most murderous of mammals: man!’ Walter Huntley stared adoringly at her symetrical features, which became so girlish and gentle when her red lips parted in a smile. For the thousandth time he thought that she was unusually tall, but breathtakingly gorgeous, from her wavy blond hair down her statuesque body to her shapely feet. The big pig trotted back into the ravine.
This tropical idyl pauses for approximately twelve hundred words of exposition to establish Diana’s and Walter’s identity, and then:
The forest hog emerged again from the ravine, leading a sow and four piglets. ‘Are they not coarse, rough, and as perfectly alike in every detail excepting size?’ Diana chuckled, snuggling against Walter’s shoulder.
I cannot recall a more engaging passage in fiction, and I’ve been trying for almost eighteen seconds.
The principals of Killers On Safari are three: Dr. Hargrave, a goatish New York physician traveling through Sierra Leone on a scientific mission vaguely related to rejuvenation; Walter Huntley, his guide, a former patron of alcoholic beverages, seeking salvation; and Diana Patten, the doctor’s nurse. Judged by ordinary hospital standards, Diana is the least conventional nurse ever sent out by a registry. The decorative heading represents her as a toothsome showgirl, clad in a minute swathe of rayon and transfixing a gigantic black warrior with an assagai. “As a student in a woman’s college, she had won prizes in archery and javelin-throwing contests,” Mr. Brigaud fluently explains.
Diana, in all justice, has her softer side; somewhat later, when she and Walter are rushed by a savage, she cries out instinctively, “Don’t kill him, but put a bullet into one of his legs!” Diana’s innate sentimentality continually gets in her way; further on, a black chieftain named Wambogo invites her to share his pallet and she taunts him into dueling with javelins, with this result: “It would have been easy for her to disembowel Wambogo before the latter could bring his own spear into play. But she preferred to maim him…Therefore she split open Wambogo’s breast muscles, and cut his tendons under his armpit. Then, as he howled with pain and rage, she slid out of his grasp, leaped back and pinked him through the leg.” Lucky for Wambogo that Diana was only pettish, or she might really have unsheathed her claws.
The story opens with Diana warning Walter that their employer, Dr. Hargrave, has become jealous of their attachment and means him no good. Her apprehensions are justified, for the Doctor is everlastingly crouched in the shrubbery, tremulous with desire, cooking up schemes for eliminating the guide. At length, he eggs on a treacherous native named Itira Nlembi to ambush Walter, but the latter draws first claret and the aggressor slinks off into the potted palms with the equivalent of a broken neck. The party now proceeds sluggishly to the territory of a tribe of fierce hallboys called the Amutu, where Dr. Hargrave divides his time between healing the sick and pinching Diana. She finds his attentions odious and haughtily terms him a boor. Dr. Hargrave smarts under the insult:
‘So, I am called a boor!’ he mouthed angrily. ‘I begin to have enough of your sponsoring the cause of the former tramp, Miss Patten!’ And turning on his heels, he strode furiously toward the central pavilion…When the portly bulk of Hargrave disappeared behind the lap [sic] of the pavilion acting as a door, her spirits sank and she moaned: ‘From bad to worse! It is bad, very bad, to be under orders of a man on the verge of insanity! I wonder how it will all end!’
It all ends quite spiritedly, with Hargrave putting a slug in the guide’s ribs and Walter bringing his revolver butt down on the Doctor’s skull. This surprisingly restores good fellowship all around, and the rivals unite to repulse an attack by the Amutu. Hargrave herewith exits untidily from the plot, struck down by a battle ax, but thanks to a homemade avalanche and some fast spear work by Diana, Walter and the girl get clear.
It then transpires how foresighted Diana was to major in archery at college; she keeps the larder well stocked with antelope meat and liquidates a black leopard who waylays her in the greenery. Some index of her pluck on this occasion may be gained from Walter’s words following the event:
‘You acted with amazing spunk and skill. You are a marvelous heroine. But, damn it! For a moment I nearly got a stroke at the thought that that awful lion was about to tear you to shreds!’
He implores Diana not to go hunting unescorted in future, but, womanlike, she disregards him and sallies forth. Thereupon her lover behaves much in the manner of a Keystone two-reeler: “Walter tore his hat from his head, slammed it on the ground, and kicked it.” Whether he jumped up and down on it or flung a custard pie after her is not indicated. His blood pressure starts vaulting when a courier reports that Diana has been taken captive by Itira Nlembi: “Walter saw blood on his face, and on one of his arms, and almost got a stroke.” Walter, in fact, constantly appears to be hovering on the edge of a syncope; the next time he sees Diana, in Itira’s lair, he reacts characteristically: “Walter nearly became apoplectic at the sight of her disheveled hair, bruised arms, and torn clothes.” My knowledge of hypertension is elementary, but it seems to me Walter would be better off rocking on the porch of a New Jersey milk farm than mousing around Sierra Leone.
The story (for want of a better term) now develops what is unquestionably the teeniest crescendo in the annals of modern typesetting. Itira Nlembi, overcome by Diana’s charms, offers to make her his queen. Diana responds in her usual polished forensic style: “I have been waiting for some hare-brained proposals ever since your evil-smelling grub-eaters ambushed me and overcame me by sheer strength of numbers!”
Nevertheless, playing for time, she pretends to accede on condition that he court her for two months, as befits a lady of rank. Itira, anxious not to breach the rules of etiquette, assents. Then, aided by two ladies of the harem, the lovers vamoose and race to meet a British relief column they have magically notified. Itira’s hatchetmen give pursuit, of course. At the couple’s darkest hour, just as Walter’s arteries are snapping like pipestems, comes deliverance:
Walter’s calm voice was belied by the feverish look of his eyes and his twitching lips. Suddenly he beamed ecstatically and shouted at the top of his lungs: ‘Oh, my dear, there will be no reason of hurting that pretty head of yours! Look, down here, toward the north! Don’t you see the gun barrels gleaming under the sun! They are coming, the British!’
A few rounds of grape disperse the blacks, and the British officer in command benignly advises Walter and Diana to get themselves to the nearest chaplain.
‘And,’ he adds, with a gruff chuckle, ‘could I be best man? I sort of think it would round up my memories of this chapter of adventures spiced by human interest.’
And so, as apoplexy and archery join lips under the giant clichés and Kipling spins in his grave like a lathe, let us bid adieu to Armand Brigaud, a great kid and a great storyteller. Dig you around Lake Chad, old boy, and don’t take any guff from Romain Gary.