Genius seems partly to be a function of obsession, which is why a certified genius like Edison said it was 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Old Tom just wanted to figure out how things worked. It just so happened the things he was interested in figuring out was kind of complicated.
It just so happens that in this book, the author, for a time at least, was obsessed with the archaic way in which people used to settle scores, though not all of the thirty-three duels are what we would think of as “duels”: where the two score-settlers pick their weapon, stand back to back, walk twenty paces, turn, and fire. Some are less deadly, such as the banjo duelists on the set of Deliverence, with Burt Reynolds being the last of the three to share his take on the proceedings, which is mostly, as you might expect, about him and how, really, all he wants to do is please his old man: “I think again of Daddy and his hard-nosed Cherokee scowl that I imitate, cock my head like him until I feel like my father . . . and in that moment, it was like he’d said, once you recognize what a fuckup you are, then you are on your way to being a man. And man, you ain’t no man until your daddy says you are” (67-68). I don’t know if Burt had father issues or not, but it feels true.
Every “duel” has separate monologues by the two participants, followed by an observer. The monologues are eerie in their insights, capturing people as they do, on the cusp of, if not their deaths, something life-changing. A majority are famous confrontations: Cain and Abel; Hamilton and Burr; George Custer and the Sioux Warrior that killed him; but a portion involve obscure battles: Two prostitutes in New Orleans during the last month the oldest profession is legal there; a fight in the yard of a prison in Huntsville, Texas; two men fighting for the last doll before Christmas at Toys “R” Us. I began to be more (or as) fascinated by how he came across these duels than the expert voices he illuminates. You can’t help but be amazed at the all-around genius you’ll witness when you read this book.
The Book of Duels should be studied by everyone interested in good writing and independent publishing, which should be everyone who reads. Books like this are the reason small publishers exist. It is so quirky and weird, so frighteningly accomplished and esoteric as to scare away a big publisher concerned only with the bottom line. Only nimble, quirky, weird obsessives (and I mean that as a great compliment: Edison was “weird” and “quirky,” too) like the good folks at Milkweed Editions could see the books’ potential clearly. Genius allows a clearer, more focused vision, like a microscope.
The duels are like short, dramatic monologues by William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, or James Tate—probably the last example is more accurate, but there is a strong current of stream-of-consciousness in all of them. I mentioned Virginia Woolf because three of the dramatic monologues are animals (a bull and two roosters); a windmill, and a dragon. I think besides Garriga, only Ms. Woolf had the artistic balls to inhabit things like that. Big artistic balls seem also to be a function of genius.
With that, here’s Pepe: 2-year-old standard poodle in the new “helper” dog program at the Michigan Reformatory:
Sniff sniff sniff smell smell smell sniff sniff sniff—all these new buttholes to whiff. All this ground and new dogs—these new people who all wear the same clothes, though I don’t know what color they are because I see in monochrome, though I dream in color. Go figure.
We live with these men in cages. We live in little cages inside bigger cages. I dream now of cages inside cages, like a toy I chewed up once of a wooden doll, inside a wooden doll, inside a wooden doll . . . the world is a cage (not a stage, as Shakespeare said), and the galaxy is a cage, and the universe is a cage, and our universe is in a multi-verse cage.
People are the dumb ones, not us dogs. We just play dumb, which is never dumb. It’s like Columbo, who played stupid to outsmart the criminal he was after. My old owner used to leave the television on during the day, and well, I studied Columbo, until my owner never came back one day—there was an accident of some kind—and I was taken to the cages at the Humane Society.
My owner’s demise wasn’t exactly an accident. I may have put a hit out on him, and the rottie (don’t worry Snickers, I’m not going to name names) down the block, who could get out whenever he wanted and owed me a solid, may have chewed the Ford’s brake line. So, the prison cage I find myself in might be ironic. Okay, it’s definitely ironic. Isn’t it ironic that I, Pepe, know all about irony?”