American novelist, and writer of short stories, non-fiction and film screenplays.
Johnny Bear, first published in the collection The Long Valley in 1938.
This is the fourth and last story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Memoir, or Observer Narration. From their introduction: “Memoir, or observer narration, is the hinge between autobiography and biography, first-person and third-person narration. In it we can see clearly the channels of information and the personal ties which disappear from the text when the narrator no longer identifies himself.”
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
Our unnamed narrator has arrived in the Californian village of Loma to work on constructing a ditch through a swamp, reclaiming the land for planting crops. He’s not local, so rents a room at Mrs Ratz’ house, and the only social activity there is in the evenings is to go drinking whisky at the Buffalo Bar, run by a lugubrious but charismatic man known as Fat Carl. The narrator has met a local girl, Mae Romero, but it’s just at the friendship stage. He has also befriended Alex Hartnell, who owns one of the local farms. One night in the bar, Johnny Bear walks in. He is a big, clumsy, unkempt man; the locals think of him as a half-wit. But he has a skill; he can remember and recite overheard conversations with pinpoint accuracy of both the words and voice – he has a remarkable ability to imitate. His trick is to come into the bar and ask someone to buy him a whisky, and the more he drinks, the more he recites these conversations. On their first meeting, he recites the conversation our narrator had previously had with Mae, much to the former’s embarrassment and the amusement of his friend Alex.
Obviously, Johnny Bear deliberately spies on people to hear what they are saying. On another occasion he relays a conversation between Miss Emalin and Miss Amy, the Hawkins sisters, known as the local aristocracy. Alex is upset at this; these sisters represent everything that’s good about Loma and feels they should be treated with respect. As their conversations become more wildly known, it becomes apparent that Amy’s mental health is deteriorating badly. One day the news permeates through that she has taken her own life. Johnny Bear comes into the bar and starts to reveal the final conversations she had with both Emalin and the doctor; and in attempt to protect the memory of Amy from scandal, Alex lands Johnny Bear a punch that stops him in his tracks, which escalates to a full brawl also involving Fat Carl and the narrator. In the end, we discover the vital fact that Johnny Bear was about to reveal, but Alex thinks the other people in the bar won’t have heard it.
It’s an engrossing read, with well-developed characters and a richly imagined environment so that the whole story rings true. Alex is motivated by his wish to preserve the dignity and reputation of two respectable women, whose integrity contributes so much to the good standing of the community. If it means having to descend to physical violence against an oaf who knows no better, then sobeit. In addition, it offends Alex’s values because Emalin and Amy were always kind and generous towards Johnny Bear, giving him food and clothes. But Johnny Bear doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to distinguish between repeatable conversations and unrepeatable ones. If they result in him being bought a whisky, then he’ll do it.
Alex’s actions also highlight a social unbalance, however, in that it’s unacceptable to treat these women in the way that Johnny Bear does, but having him mimicking the narrator’s private conversation, who is working class, a stranger, and without a good name to uphold, is fair game. Johnny Bear is a typical Steinbeck creation, very much in the mould of Lennie from Of Mice and Men; his gift is to speak the truth indiscriminately, whether everyone else wants to hear it or not.
I learned a new word – fumadiddle! Fat Carl is said to be not a fan of them. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s a variant of flumadiddle, a mid-19th century name for a dish made from stale bread, pork fat, molasses, and spices, baked in the oven. This came to mean nonsense, humbug, something trivial or ridiculous.
The next story in the anthology is the first of eight classified by Moffett and McElheny as biography, or anonymous narration – single character point of view, Patricia Edith and Arnold by Dylan Thomas.