Fake News, Hyper-Patriotism, and War: America in 1918
Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a Novel of Now
A woman of 24, a writer for a shoestring news venue, arrives at her workspace one morning to find two men sitting on her desk. She focuses on the taller of the two and realizes he “might be anything at all . . . ; promoter, . . . salesman—any follower of one of the crafty, haphazard callings.” Not that the young creative doesn’t know what this huckster is selling. It’s the fall of 1918, and over in France and Belgium, her country has committed a lot of young men to vague notions of saving democracy. A lot of them have died, too.
That November, hostilities will collapse into Armistice, but US losses will run over 50,000, an astonishing number for a nation so briefly in the fight. But then the War to End All Wars had been a meat-grinder from the first, bound to take a steep toll, and while the doughboys were paying in blood, everyone back home was pressured to buy bonds. The business lures in the crafty and haphazard, “now all Patriot.” They badger even someone going paycheck to paycheck, like this Miranda. In no time she’s silently fuming: “Suppose I said to hell with this filthy war?”
Miranda manages to hold her tongue, and her “inquisitors” leave without a pledge. Still, the next morning she’s facing worse. Wracked with “a burning slow headache,” the young woman can barely do her face, and she tries a joshing diagnosis; the pain “seemed . . . to have started with the war.” But over coffee with her lightning bolt of a boyfriend—a newly minted lieutenant who just got to town and will soon ship out—Miranda confesses, “I feel too rotten. It can’t just be . . . the war.” She and her Adam have to consider the other killer just then on the march, the one with a hateful nickname, recalling the bondsmen and their talk of “Huns.” The “Spanish Pox,” people call it: a strain of flu that over the next couple of years will cut a grim swath. The body count will run upwards of 700,000 in the US alone.
Twin abysses, in short, yawn before the couple. To fight the chill, they use the same weapons bright young people always have, wisecracks and sweet-talk. They make jokes of Adam’s training and plans for dancing. Tomorrow, since this is Denver, they’ll “drive to the mountains.” Still, Miranda remains under a pall; she woke to a dream at once liberating and terrifying.“Katherine Anne Porter outlasted a string of wretched lovers, tragic miscarriages, and misogynist editors.”
Raised on a ranch, she’d seen herself back there, slipping out on her favorite horse Graylie. In an hallucinatory tour de force—barely a page, in print—she finds herself going neck-and-neck across open country, alongside another gray, its jockey a “stranger . . . in dark shabby garments that flapped upon his bones.”
Pale Horse, Pale Rider, yes. In these opening scenes and throughout, the 1939 masterpiece from Katherine Anne Porter sets the Reaper on a memorable gallop. The author herself lent weight to the text, in the introduction to her 1965 Collected Stories. This omnibus included both Rider and its two companions, Old Mortality and Noon Wine, each of them fewer than 50 pages, but Porter insisted that all three were “short novels.” As for “novella,” she dismissed it as a “boneless, affected word”—and considering she was then in her seventies, and had outlasted a string of wretched lovers, tragic miscarriages, and misogynist editors, who are we to say otherwise? Especially since the Collected went on to win both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. In combination with her late, lone novel Ship of Fools (a bestseller and movie), the anthology released Porter from her long purgatory of high esteem but measly paychecks. It remains her best sampler, and at its center erupts this short novel (yes!): magnificent in timeless ways but also, 100 years after it was set, no less than ghastly in how it matters now.
The story unfolds like a fever dream. Once Miranda’s “fearful cold” puts her in hospital, Pale Horse, Pale Rider reaches an improbable locus for the climax: inside the young woman’s delirium. Her stream-of-sick-consciousness whips up an unlikely dramatic conflict, pitting figments of dream against each other. When orderlies clear out a corpse:
a pallid white fog rose in their wake insinuatingly . . . a fog in which was concealed all terror and all weariness, all the wrung faces and broken feet of abused, outraged living things . . .
Before this monster the invalid shrinks, and yet discovers its antagonist: “there remained of her only a minute fiercely burning particle that knew itself alone, that relied on nothing beyond itself . . . , motiveless and planless . . . , [a] hard unwinking angry point of light.”
Against the fog, a stubborn light: Gatsby comes to mind, for a mature reader drawn into Miranda’s cathartic battle. Setting the two American landmarks together reveals the high stakes for which the later author was playing; the bet is, the New World against old verities. Not that Porter fails to deliver in the smaller arenas of her work, the illness memoir and love story. Her depiction of what passes for thought at death’s door convinces me as deeply as any I’ve encountered; a seminar on craft could be devoted to its shifts, speed, and juxtapositions.
As for Adam and Miranda, their names combining the Garden of Genesis and Shakespeare’s “brave new world,” the couple’s feelings emerge as all the more tender for remaining unconsummated. They live on tenterhooks, unable to resist another night out, despite the danger; later Adam sits vigil by his girl’s bedside, risking gossip as well as infection. Overall, the affair wrenches the heart and the hallucinations make the skin crawl—yet both developments are never out of touch with the carnage in the trenches and the terminal wards.
A young striver, this protagonist sees herself as having a career in media, however threadbare. She and the other woman on the paper were “real reporters once,” before they’d blown a scoop and “been degraded publicly to routine female jobs.” In Miranda’s case that means covering theater, and yet every time she hits the office—the only recurring setting besides the sickbed—there’s no hiding behind petticoats. If she isn’t getting shaken down for a bond, then she’s throwing shade with her colleagues, sharing gallows humor about crises of the moment:
“They say . . . [the flu] is really caused by germs brought by a German ship to Boston . . . ”
“Maybe it was a submarine . . . that sounds better.”
The banter wouldn’t feel out of place in His Girl Friday (released within a year of Rider), but the situation’s considerably more dire. Concerning the flu, the xenophobic smears that surround it, the news business has done as much harm as good. The tall tale about the U-Boat, for instance, prompts some revealing snark: “I read it in a New York newspaper . . . so it’s bound to be true.” And elsewhere: “Oh, there won’t be any more wars, don’t you read the newspapers?” Miranda’s work seems oppressed by flimflam artists even when they aren’t sitting on her desk, and the dirty dealing taints the culture beat as well. Another reporter explains that a single impresario “has got show business cornered in this town,” and so her columns ought to “play up the headliners,” in order to win advertisers. “Hand-in-glove,” Miranda’s friend chides her, “my poor dumb child, will you never learn?”
If only she were a dumb child! If only she couldn’t spot the rigged games going on, threatening her and the man she hopes to trust for a lifetime. Miranda and Adam can’t even get through a date without some shabby player hawking Bonds. At the theater, during intermission, another charlatan takes the stage, “for once in his life . . . important.” He warns of “the vile Huns” and “the death of civilization,” then leads the crowd in a singalong. Adam and Miranda, eager for any release, pitch in “at the tops of their voices, grinning shamefacedly.” Yet even as the girl sings, she knows what young people like her will wind up paying: “What about Adam,” she thinks, “you little pig?” If only she were in fact a child, and couldn’t see past the puppet onstage to the ones who pull the strings: “Coal, iron, gold, international finance, why don’t you tell us about them, you little liar?”
It’s moments like this that establish Pale Horse, Pale Rider as terribly pertinent to our times, so befuddled by lies. “Fake news:” the term’s too ham-fisted for an artist like Porter, but it colors every aspect of her novel. It’s implacable as Miranda’s fog of the broken and abused.
At the theater, the scam practically assaults the couple. The singalong recalls nothing so much as the current mania, in most ballparks, for a late-inning rendition of “God Bless America,” complete with full color guard. In other scenes, the charade of the “war effort” delivers a quieter shiver. One instance comes when the protagonist and other “brightly painted girls” bring treats to a military hospital. The soldiers are “a selected presentable lot,” and it’s a party in the ward; it could be one of those beer ads that feature a jarhead in fatigues, coming home to a hottie in cutoffs (or two). The scene in Porter, however, includes something far less pretty, a gloomy young man wounded beyond repair. With no more than a glance, an “unfriendly bitter eye,” this soldier leaves Miranda “miserably embarrassed,” and she hustles back out to her shared ride. Yet when another girl joins her, likewise shaken, both shy away from the reality of their tarted-up Samaritanism: “I suppose it’s all right, though . . . ”
Hey, nothing wrong with selling beer. In the novel, Miranda’s conscience asserts itself on the final date. “The worst of the war,” she declares, is “the awful expression in . . . the eyes . . . , as if they had pulled down the shutters on their minds and their hearts.” To put it that way suggests a city visited by plague—precisely as Adam later describes Denver: “all the theaters and nearly all the shops and restaurants . . . closed.” Thus when these two speak the truth, they underscore the sameness of the cataclysms facing them: a worldwide infection and a Big Con. The terrors get some media attention, to be sure, especially in scruffy forums like Miranda’s—and not unlike The Rumpus or The Baffler. But at those places too, bright young people often wind up covering the fluff, whether vaudeville or Marvel. Such gee-whiz is what gets the eyeballs, after all. Gets likes and retweets.
Porter’s young people, between them, struggle to create a different sort of space, Edenic—a space of trust. “Trust” indeed might be the word that saves Miranda’s life, whispered by her point of light in the fog, her hard and unwinking beacon. “Trust me,” it declares, and with that begins her recovery. Yet Porter’s style remains feverish, a barely melodic jazz, and its most plangent moment comes when Miranda is past the worst. When at last she can sit up and talk sensibly, what wakes her is the celebration of Armistice. The hospital is alive with “bustle,” and there’s “a ragged chorus of cracked voices singing, ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee . . . ’”
To the protagonist, beaten up, wised up, “my country” looks like a marked card in a sucker’s game. She sees beyond this one holocaust, across a whole “bitter world,” where “the sound of rejoicing was a clamor of pain.” That howl grows louder still when she reads, in a stranger’s letter, that the flu has killed Adam. The war hasn’t spared her, no more than it spares some contemporary wife or sister who welcomes home a vet ravaged by PTSD. The larger tragedy has a role for everyone. In Miranda’s case, she at least wises up; she demonstrates the backbone of her creator, a woman who never quit on her gifts. Yet it’s Porter’s short novel that does the heavy lifting, these days. As the US war economy revs up for its second century, as it generates more riches for the few and more lies for the rest—lies gussied up in bunting and sparklers—this great work helps keep us alert, an ear cocked for hoofbeats of our time’s true icon.