The Bitter Half disrobes the reality of gender, performing a striptease of masks and prosthetic devices, the subtle articulations and miscues of desire. A spit-curl lovingly tucked behind a diamond stud earring, hair brushed pageboy-style, a bibliographic collection of mastectomy scars: Toby Olson’s characters swarm with sexual multiplicity, each offering for exhibit a cyclorama of titillating identities.
This game of poses, of one self revealed within another, opens in a jail in Depression-era Pearce, Arizona. Chris Pollard, a consultant in the field of prison escapology, has arrived to investigate the case of an inmate who’s broken out of every prison in which he has been detained. The two develop an evasive fondness from a distance – an attention to cowlicks and thin lips from between bars. Their relationship remains concealed among levels of identity, Russian Matryoshka dolls, a mystery within a mystery.
Revealing their mutual attraction inch-by-inch, The Bitter Half uncovers a topographical map of seductions, of stratified assumptions and amorphousness. In the manner of Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, and The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, Toby Olson’s latest work of fiction is rich in strangeness and erotic delight, a delectation intended to be enjoyed one layer at a time.
"Of all the writers of his postmod generation, Toby Olson is the most forgiving. Even when writing of the most mundane acts-performing in a backwoods porn show, for example, or inaugurating an outhouse-he grants all his characters the full wonder and mystery of their lives, and strokes language as a lover might the flesh of his beloved." —Robert Coover
"At every turn Olson reminds his reader how information inevitably recovers ambiguity, how the tidiest sense of remembered history and constructed plot are more journeys into accident and chance, how everyday lives must play out against and amid the luminous, albeit clumsy, mystery of attraction and want. The language, as always with Olson, is broad, adamant, and stunning, this text a conjured place fit for extended habitation." —Review of Contemporary Fiction
I met him when I was consulting at a prison outside of Pearce
in the southeast corner of Arizona. He was boyish still at twenty-one,
yet known as a wily criminal, and they had fixed up a good place
for him and were concerned only with the Mexicans.
Most of the Mexicans were taken on dusty streets and in bars in the border towns, Naco and Agua Prieta, sometimes as far west as Nogales. They must have felt some safety in their home country after the long trek, unaware of agreements at the local level, a few dollars to informers near the crossing. The prison would send down men to get them, Chicanos for the most part, but there were those who had wits enough to continue south, beyond Cananea, and were lost to them forever. It was 'thirty-five and so was I, a child of the troubled century, and it was these prison breaks they'd brought me there to deal with.
The sky was overcast, but I wore a plantation hat, as much for the look of it as for the filtered sun. They'd given me a dozen prisoners to dig test holes at measured distances along the fenced perimeter. This was always the first thing and was often perfunctory, and I found myself gazing out over the desert and the purple sage, those worn down foothills in the distance quite distinct and beautiful under the cloudy sky. Mexico was a real promise at the end of that vision, a constant urging, and I was wondering about the advisability of a canvas screeing sewn to the fence in order to block that view.
They'd sent the architectural renderings ahead, but no blue-prints, and in the letter an obvious hint that this was political money, what little was around those days, public relations for those seeking office on the back of the Great Depression. It was clear they'd hired me only to cover their own simple incompetence.
The renderings presented a blatantly obvious plan, nothing of interest and no possibility of surprises, and though I had no need of work or of the money—my father's will had provided amply for the latter—I'd taken the job because I had a little free time and had never been in that part of the country.
"Maybe I can fly," he'd said.
A brim helps a hat form a secret window between cheekbones and brow, an isolating rectangle, and in the shade of mine I felt dramatic and disguised as I turned to that voice and saw him pressed against the wire, his fingers curled in the links at his shoulders. He had short blond hair, a cowlick at his brow, and I could see the terms of a squalid world beyond him.
They'd dragged a metal shed from somewhere, the size of an outhouse. It even had a vented chimney in its flat roof. It was elevated on cinder blocks, and there was a view between them to the back wall of his wire cage. The shed was visible from all sides. It had a small window covered in wire mesh above its door. He had privacy, but it would be hot in there, even under cloud cover. A bucket sat a few feet away for shitting; he could piss in the hot sand at the perimeter, take his meals on the brief wooden steps. The cage was open to the sky, and I saw him glance up there. Then he lowered his head and smiled at me. It's nothing at all, his look said, a piece of cake. He could leave when he wanted to.
"Check the résumé," I said.
"I have, I have. But that's all in the East, and you don't know Mexicans."
I doubted that. I'd had enough dealings over the years to know about men and their nature.
"You understand," he said, "This is a boondoggle. It's political. So long as we go through the paces and I get your report."
"And the kid in the cage," I said. "What about him?"
"You're not here for that. It's the Mexicans and those assholes over the border, it's their concern. That we're letting criminals loose to go back in again, what with the economic situation. It's the politicians, on both sides. So long as we go through the paces."
I knew the kid had his ways. He'd been in five different prisons
since nineteen-thirty when he was first taken. He'd escaped from
all of them. And I could tell, too, that what they had going for
him here was seriously flawed. They thought if they could only see
him, guards and lights, they'd have him. But he had his privacy
within that little shed.
"I've got about a week," I said. "The cells, mess hall, and the infirmary. The yard and perimeter fencing seem okay. I'll have to check the work schedules, the entertainments.
"There aren't any."
It was Wednesday. "By next Thursday," I said. "I'll
have it written up."
I examined the cells carefully. There was nothing in the mess hall or infirmary. The well and septic tank were inside the perimeter, and though the yard was porous sand, the fence was set in concrete, a wall that went down more than twenty feet into the ground. And they weren't going over the fence or through it either.
The place was sound as it could be, and I think I knew early on that the matter was purely cultural. They were in it together, Chicanos, Mexicans, and the few gringos there, all two hundred of them. I knew it in their faces in the exercise yard and from the words I'd passed with a few of them in my peregrinations.
I wrote it up, made prominent reference to the vision-fence to put my mark on it, and even suggested a variation on the mirrors I'd used to great effect in Nova Scotia.
In that case, the prison sat on a high promontory at the edge of sea, and the mirrors had aided the tower guards in finding escapees as they moved down through the rocky declivities that were ripe with hiding places. They also presented the wayward with their own desperate images, surprising there and disorienting. Here they could set the mirrors out in the desert on the back side, where the lights of Pearce were a promise. These were not complex changes, though beyond their dull imaginings after all, and I knew that nothing I could suggest would come to anything.
I wrote then the more significant answer to their problems, that they had a community, ready-made, and needed to turn its energies inward. Sports and recreation, a few books in a library, better food. This would keep the short timers there and get the others to think twice about the matter. I ended my report with a few more specifics about the physical plant, but they were of little consequence.
It was Thursday morning when I finished, and after I'd filed the carbon and packed my suitcases, I dressed in the white linen suit and drove out to the prison from Pearce. The warden wasn't there, but the kid was, and once I'd delivered the manila envelope and was heading back across the yard, I saw him urinating off in a corner of his cage and caught his eye as he smiled over his shoulder.
I had a Monday train reservation out of Tucson and the whole weekend ahead of me. My next job was a fortnight away, a chain gang prison in bayou country down in Louisiana, issues of suicide and ineffective brutality. I'd arrive back in Wisconsin by the end of the week, would have a few cool days at the cabin before I set out again.
It was incredibly hot, and once I'd slipped off the white jacket and reached in to crank open the Ford's windshield, I braved the heat of the car's oven, heading south on the dusty road toward Tombstone and the promise of those cooling foothills. Tombstone offered little, though I found a room at the edge of town with a fan at the window and in moments felt the sweat drying away in the cool breeze riding down from the San Pedro mountains. The town was sleepy in the summer heat, waiting for the tourists that were not coming. There was the Birdcage Theater, the Tombstone Epitaph, and the OK Corral, but the weight of Depression sat heavily here, as through the entire country. Doors were locked up tight, windows rendered opaque by desert dust.
I sat under fans at the Crystal Palace, sipping a beer. I'd changed into flannel pants, almost pajama-like, and a gaucho shirt I'd purchased in Argentina a few years before. Warmer clothes were laid out for the next day's journey, when I'd be heading for the mountains and the town of Bisbee. There were a few cowboys drinking in the Palace.
They watched me suspiciously, at least until I called for beers around, wiping my brow dramatically with my handkerchief.
The next morning brought a light, soothing rain, and I was happy for the umbrella I'd purchased earlier as I loaded my suitcases into the Ford's trunk. People stood in the streets, looking up in wonderment as I passed them. The clouds were moving swiftly, and I could see the place where sun brightened the sage-brush beyond a veil of mist. It was raining, and it was deep into the summer. Then the rain was gone.
Bisbee was more interesting than Tombstone. An open-pit copper mining town, it nestled in the mountains a few thousand feet above the desert plain. The pit itself was in operation, albeit with a skeleton crew, and was billed as the largest in the U.S. It was truly impressive, testing the terms of distance vision, a whole world of weather and activity between one side and the other. Still, it was a hole in the ground, and I quit my examinations early, shopped the main street for a while, then returned to the hotel and read. I was tired after the week's work, and rather than venturing out again, I ate lightly in the hotel diner, then retired early and slept late into the morning of the next day.
At one I put in a call to Danker.
"It's two o'clock here," he said. He always said the time when I checked in.
"Any mail? Phone calls?"
"Just a few weary travelers, looking for work. I put them on to clearing brush, pulling weeds in the maze. Avery Brattle called."
"Again?" I said.
He laughed. "Doesn't seem to get the point, I guess."
"It's been hot as hell here," I said.
"Not here. They wrote from Louisiana to confirm. I sent them your arrival time. There's no other mail to speak of."
"What about Southpaw and Bret, what's up with them?"
"They're okay, just fine. They brought the girls over yesterday. The upper rooms are aired, and they took care of your father's study and the kitchen. They'll be back for the rest of the downstairs in a day or two. The girls I mean. Bret's working at the cabin."
"Sounds good," I said. "Did Avery have anything at all to say?"
"No. Nothing. He wants to see you though."
"I'm sure he does."
"I told him I didn't know your exact schedule. Are you coming back soon?"
"Middle of the week," I said. "Thursday at the latest. It depends on the Union Pacific."
"Keep cool," he said.
I read for most of the day, a book about penal institutions and the social end of things. Such issues had arisen in my work dramatically in recent consultations, and though my interest was in physical plants exclusively, solutions often came in other terms, softer and more ambiguous ones, and now I was thinking ahead to that Louisiana deal and what might be at issue there.
I was taking notes when I noticed the paper darkening, and when I looked at my watch I saw it was already seven-thirty. If I was going to head down into Mexico, I'd better get started. I wore a blue chambray shirt and a pair of jeans and took the straw hat along. I had deck shoes, but I put the work boots on instead. I knew I couldn't be inconspicuous, but I could at least avoid a tourist look. I wanted to see the place where the Pearce prison Mexicans escaped to, if only to put some flesh on the end of things and get the recent consultation behind me.
Naco, black chewing tobacco; that was the name of the town and its translation, a typical dusty border town where they hosed the dirt streets with water and hosed the few gringos they could get their hands on. There'd be no law in the place, except for money, and little of that, and I left my watch and rings and even the diamond stud in the hotel safe before heading out. The town was only a few miles away, but down below the foothills, and when I stopped at the border crossing I could feel the heat in the stone kiosk as I leaned out.
Beyond the border, there was very little to be seen in the darkness. I passed down a street with a few shops on the left, all locked up for the night, then turned at an unmarked corner and came in sight of the only activity about.
Bar lights bathed the edges of the dirt square, two active tabernas and a quieter one all in a row. I could hear music coming from open doorways well before I got there. Four trucks and a half-dozen rusted out cars were parked awkwardly below the boardwalk, and beyond were the shadow figures of low, ramshackle houses along side streets, a few dim bulbs behind cloth covered windows.
Three women were passing out through the door of the Casa Rojo as I pulled in. Heels and thick makeup. Fifty-cent whores, they laughed and poked each other when they saw me. I waved them off as I climbed the steps, then headed for the Blue Moon, the quieter place at the end.
It was dark inside and almost empty. The bartender sat on a high stool at the bar's end, talking quietly to an old man in bib overalls and a baseball cap. The only other customers were four silent cowboys, elbows at the rail, their Stetsons hiding their heads entirely. There was a jukebox off in a corner and a few small tables. Above the bottles behind the bar the wall was hung with crooked pictures, views of the town in better days, I thought, though I could barely make out the images.
I moved to the bar's end and called softly for cerveza. When I heard the scraping of the bartender's stool, I noticed the sound was coming from the wrong place, not there, but over my right shoulder. I turned to a dim, yellow light, the edge of a shit-stained toilet bowl as the door down the hallway opened, then saw his head come up as he touched the walls to get his bearings. I saw the cowlick then, and under it his smile of recognition.
The Bitter Half
The Bitter Half