Review by Paul McDonald
THE BEAVER DAM ROCKING CHAIR MARATHON
By Ron Whitehead
Ron Whitehead has been living in a state of perpetual creativity these days.
He is currently working on a biography of writer Paul Bowles ("Paul Bowles:
Odd Man Out") and recently completed "Calling The Toads: William S. Burroughs,
A Compendium." In the midst of it all he released a manuscript he has been
working on for over twenty years entitled "The Beaver Dam Rocking Chair
Marathon," published by Tilt-a-Whirl Press, and based on an actual event that
took place in Beaver Dam, Kentucky. In this book, Whitehead returns to his
Western Kentucky roots, and with his gift of perceiving the divine in the
ordinary, offers us an exciting new work.
The main character is a young man named Bone who is returning home to meet his
family and to participate in the Beaver Dam Centennial festivities. As Bone
travels to Beaver Dam and takes part in the celebration, the text cuts away to
bring us to the various people and places that Bone has known growing up in
Ohio County, Kentucky. These segues are an important element of the book,
coming in the forms of poems, short narratives and haiku. The first we
encounter is "Mama," where Whitehead exposes us to the volatile nature and
dark humor so inherent in this part of Kentucky.
Mama had the shotgun. We drove slow through the
storm with mama looking all round then she pulled
and said "come on." We followed. We walked a ways
until we came up on a tree, a cedar tree, and Mama
said, "get behind me." We did and she took aim
and shot the tree in the trunk with both barrels.
Blew it clean in two. Mama said, "ya'll get the
Christmas tree and come on." Us kids let out a yell!
We were so happy cause Christmas had finally come.
>From there we move to other anecdotes and remembrances, some as hard-bitten,
stark and compelling like "Johnny Powers" and "Maimee Woolsey." At another end
of the spectrum we find the gentle, almost pastoral lyricism of "Kentucky
Blues," "On The Threshold of Forgiveness," and "You Grow Wild In My Heart," all
of which convey a complex and rich existence.
The unifying theme throughout the entire book is the event that Bone has
chosen to participate in: The Beaver Dam Rocking Chair Marathon. The name
attests to exactly what the event is--a marathon rocking chair event in which
the last one rocking is the winner of the grand prize of $500. The marathon
takes place outdoors in the hot sun with bathroom breaks every three hours.
The heat, humidity, sleep deprivation and the fact that the over 100 contestants
are deadly serious about endurance, culminate to evoke an altered state of
consciousness. Suddenly Bone's reunion with his family and place of origin
takes on the depths of a spiritual initiation, and Whitehead's spontaneity and
urgency combine with his rhythmic prose to bring about an alchemical
distillation of the experience:
Sitting up, straightening his back, breathing deep
he sees himself, in the rocker, from above. He is
outside himself. Mind and body are separate. Where
are emotions? He realizes his anger is gone. No
feeling is present. Only seein. He hears someone
say to be a poet most of all to see...
Like the Vision Quests of the Native Americans, Bone's vision is a journey
through the past to the future with the present as its vehicle. It reaches a
climax with "Death On My Shoulder,""From Marmuk to Urantia" and the 21-verse
I go too far
I won't live
my body burns
on funeral pyre
"The Beaver Dam Rocking Chair Marathon" is more than just a story about a
backwoods festival. It is a young man's coming of age, a dharma gate that
must be entered, a magnificent Zen koan where the question and answer lie
hidden in the experience.
Many people have compared Ron Whitehead's work to that of the Beat Generation
or as one who has picked up the torch from that movement. This is a somewhat
limiting comparison because while the influence of the Beat Generation is
there, so are his Kentucky Roots. Like any writer of merit Ron Whitehead has
had to search for, risk, fail and finally discover his own voice, and it is a
voice that resonates with authenticity. Whitehead is still a very young man
and this volume marks the beginning of a literary career that will be very
interesting to watch unfold.