#720 Masks, midgets, and junk culture

The Ventriloquist’s Dummy Tells All: A Politically Incorrect Novel
by Ernest Hekkanen

Nelson: New Orphic Publishers, 2019
$20 / 9781894842273

Reviewed by Sean Arthur (Art) Joyce

The Ventriloquist’s Dummy can be purchased directly from New Orphic Publishers at 706 Mill Street, Nelson, B.C. V1L 4S5. The cost is $25, which includes postage — Ed.

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When an author subtitles a book “A Politically Incorrect Novel,” you have to wonder. Is it just a red flag to bait people of a certain political persuasion? A great big middle finger to the world from a frustrated author? Or is something deeper going on? Well, for anyone who has read even one of Ernest Hekkanen’s 48 books, clearly there’s something more going on than mere rage-baiting. We leave that to mainstream news and social media.

The story revolves around the vaudeville act of two cousins billed as The Famous Hugo and Otto, the former a giant of 7’9” tall, the other a midget of only 3’1” (or as the politically correct might prefer, “person of small stature;” somehow it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue the same way). While still in high school, they hit upon the idea of performing as a ventriloquist act, though their strict Mennonite upbringing in Virginia attempts to impose constraints on their show biz aspirations. The novel serves as a kind of “fake news” of the entertainment world, pitching Hugo and Otto as appearing with top names like Johnny Carson and every bit as famous. They are even invited to the White House of JFK and appear on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Circus giant and dwarf playing cards, circa 1930. Postcard circa of eBay

The biography of the duo is told from Otto’s perspective as an elderly retired performer, with Hugo long since dead. That alone raises issues common to rock star biographies, where a single band member “tells all,” but conveniently places himself at the centre of the band’s successes. And once other band members die off, it becomes harder to refute his more grandiose claims.

What I find interesting in the relationship between Hugo and Otto is the extreme contrast in their natures. While Hugo is endowed — or over-endowed — by nature with not just large stature but a large “tallywhacker” and an even larger libido, Otto is clearly the brains of the duo, an ironic turn on him being the “dummy.” Now there’s a double entendre worth more than a snicker. The stage routine they perform in which Otto breaks his arm due to not being caught by Hugo in a staged fall (pp. 126-28), which deteriorates into onstage bickering rather than a practiced act, is telling in this regard. Obviously long before this point in the story we realize who the brains of the outfit is. Hugo’s seemingly insatiable sexual appetite makes him ideal fodder for tabloid headlines, much like many of today’s rock stars, some of whom, long past their peak, become “famous for being famous” rather than any continuing contribution to their art. At this most obvious level, Hekkanen is satirizing an easy target.

Ernest Hekkanen

But again, this is an author known for a fine subtlety of thought, so perhaps there is more going on. A ventriloquist’s dummy could be a metaphor for any vehicle an artist uses to convey their art, a tradition that is as old as ancient Greek theatre, in which masks were held up by actors to convey different roles. Even though in the act they perform, Hugo is ostensibly the one “using” Otto as the “dummy” to speak, time and again Otto outwits him. Is the mask outwitting the actor who wields it? In reading about the late David Bowie, his mid-1970s Los Angeles period strikes me this way, as he allowed his invented personae to get the better of him by crossing over the boundary between fantasy and reality. (All the cocaine he was ingesting at this point didn’t help.)

Walter Sorrell, The Other Face: The Mask in the Arts (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973)

The best work I’ve read on the ancient use of the mask by performers is a long out-of-print book by Walter Sorrell, The Other Face: The Mask in the Arts. Sorrell points up the duality of the mask as a creative vehicle, quoting both Rousseau: “When the mask falls, man becomes revealed,” and Oscar Wilde: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” In response to these seeming opposites, I might ask: “Is the image produced by the artist a mirror or a mask of the soul?” Hekkanen’s fake celebrity biography leaves you none the wiser on this question, though the reader inevitably sympathizes with Otto, the teller of this tall tale.

There’s a strange kind of reversal going on with the roles played by Hugo and Otto. I found myself wondering if Hugo is an avatar for what a friend of mine calls “junk culture” — the pulp novels, pop music, and movies that garner millions of viewers, yet are mostly empty of any real content. Meanwhile Ott0, the so-called “dummy,” continually surprises the reader with his wit and ability to think on his feet in difficult situations. In the scene where Rialto Theatre manager Harold Minsky is trying to dicker down the price of their act, he makes much of the fact that, “These two fools you sent me, one is so big he practically goes up through the ceiling and the other’s so small I need binoculars to see him up on stage” (p. 130). By extension, much of what we might call “serious” art, for example poetry, is all but invisible on the world stage, while the more base entertainments like the smash HBO series Game of Thrones can boast an audience in the millions all over the world.

Ernest Hekkanen and his partner Margrith Schraner with copies of the New Orphic Review, which they published in Nelson between 1997 and 2017

I wondered if Hekkanen sees himself in this predicament — a serious artist who feels mostly ignored by his contemporaries while lesser talents become literary lights in our celebrity-obsessed junk culture. To be fair, for an artist who has doggedly refused to be part of the literary mainstream, Hekkanen has garnered some impressive accolades. His novel Of a Fire Beyond the Hills was a finalist for the George Ryga Award in 2008. In 2016, the home of the literary venture he established with partner Margrith Schraner — New Orphic Publishers and the New Orphic Gallery, which features Hekkanen’s impressive paintings — was designated a BC Literary Landmark by BC Bookworld publisher Alan Twigg. Hekkanen is mentioned in the Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada and, as a Finnish-American, won a Silver Badge of Merit from Finland. I should be so lucky! Yet he has typically taken a dim view of his own work and legacy, commenting often on the pointlessness of writing books that only a handful of people will ever read. It’s a complaint common to writers. Hekkanen explained, in answer to my question, that:

Postcard courtesy eBay

You’re right about junk culture. It has estranged me immensely. In this day and age, I might as well be shoeing horses for a living. I’m endeavouring to employ myself at an occupation that isn’t wanted on the voyage. However, I was also trying to have some fun with junk culture. The “tell all” book is a genre furthered by organs like The National Enquirer and People Magazine. Clothe us all properly and we all become clowns. In the face of existence; we can only flap and flail uselessly.

Junk culture since the advent of the Internet and social media has gone mainstream, making it harder and harder to tell which is junk and which is high art. Though some might argue this has been a democratizing influence, removing elitism from the arts, it has also erased the boundaries of good taste — something Hekkanen flirts with unashamedly here.

I also queried Hekkanen about the strange duality of roles performed by Hugo and Otto. He replied:

First of all, I would like to say that no one has pulled off my mask the way you have in your email. To confirm much of what you are saying, I’d like to point to Chapter 6, in which Otto suspends his tale long enough to discuss “animation.” Does the “greater” animate us, or, in the quantum landscape we have created for ourselves, does the “smaller” animate all of existence?

Giant lighting a cigarette for midget. Postcard courtesy eBay

Or, as Walter Sorrell asks in The Mask in the Arts, “What is mask and what is face, when a pilot returns from a bombing mission, his face with the gratified expression, ‘Mission fulfilled’?”

Hekkanen is well known as a deliberately provocative writer, so I also had to ask him about his intentions in writing a “politically incorrect novel.” His reply:

When I started Dummy, I first thought of it in terms of taking disparate ideas and combining them in a narrative that would defy disbelief. Could I overcome that reader’s disbelief? At what point would he throw up his hands and say, “This is a load of bunk?”

As it happens, the novel is far more than mere provocation. Hekkanen and Schraner had retired the biannual journal New Orphic Review in 2017. But most artists never truly “retire.” The act of creation is fundamental to their existence and even their sanity. Writing the novel was partly a way for Hekkanen to deal with a chronic condition that could easily be crippling to a writer. “Curiously enough,” he wrote, “while I was working on Dummy, I was suffering quite badly from viral polyneuritis. Indeed, writing Dummy at a laboriously slow pace has helped me deal with the disease.” The condition gave him the unexpected — if unsettling — advantage of an inside perspective:

Aslett the midget and Van Albert the giant, Saville Row. London, 1947. Postcard courtesy of eBay

But during those weeks and months, while walking here and there, I would suddenly feel as though I were about two feet tall. My surroundings did not confirm my delusions; it was just a mistaken feeling due to the way my brain was affected by my misfiring synapses. But it was disconcerting, nonetheless.

So here we have a major clue as to the author’s intention — not to childishly mock either readers or “little people,” or whatever the correct expression is these days, but to wear the mask of such a person and see life from the rather privileged perspective of a famous performer. While being interviewed, Otto lets the mask slip long enough to reveal his disgust for the discrimination his height causes. He bristles when Hugo’s wife — a former circus performer of large girth known as “Bubbles” — refers to him as “the little bugger.” During their brief stint with Ringling Brothers, Bubbles tells them like it is: “Listen fellas, to the rest of the world all we are is freaks. You might as well get that straight right now. It’s not your talent that’s so scintillating. It’s the fact that you’re a couple of freaks” (p. 145).

Bubbles isn’t just a character played for cheap laughs. Her intelligence in these comments reveals her to be an insightful observer of human nature, like the author. She understands the audience-performer relationship at an intimate level. The performer’s “mask” can only suggest, and the audience must fill in the blanks. This is how onlookers “participate” in a performance. “People look at me and immediately they define who I am,” Otto says. “I’m a midget. They see me and they think midget. That’s their definition of me” (p. 216). Cleverly, Hekkanen invents a dialogue with philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to make this point, adding depth and dimension to the story. Consequently, the reader is faced with a similar dilemma. Will they be unduly distracted by the mask of irreverence Hekkanen throws up with the sexual jokes about Hugo, the easy shorthand of lampooning fat people, giants, and midgets? Or will they persist long enough to see past this feint, to the deeper soul behind the mask?

Ernest Hekkanen

In the end, besides representing people of unusual stature, Otto is an effective metaphor for the artist, who often feels alien within mainstream society, as Hekkanen explains:

I was exploring what it might be like for two human beings who don’t fit particularly well in the human landscape. Everything is too vast for Otto; indeed, every doorknob is way too high off the ground. And for Hugo, there simply isn’t enough room to move around without banging his head on door-frames. How can they manage in such a foreign world? This has been my question to myself for decades now. I have never been particularly well adjusted. Literature has helped me compensate, while estranging me further.

When all is said and done and the masks stripped away, what is revealed is ultimately an act of courage. To simply exist in a potentially hostile world, whether you’re a person of unusual height or girth, or an author, becomes a powerful act of both defiance and creativity. The mask we project into the world is what helps us cope. Sorrell again: “We are all mask-makers, living with a mask-like make-believe of reality.”

The Ventriloquist’s Dummy Tells All reveals a master of prose at work, slowed down perhaps but undimmed by age and infirmity.

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Art Joyce

Sean Arthur (Art) Joyce has been a freelance writer and journalist since 1990, working since 2005 as a reporter and Arts and Culture Editor for the New Denver-based Valley Voice, an independently-owned newspaper. His poems and essays have appeared in Canadian AuthorThe FiddleheadWhetstoneThe New Quarterly, Acumen (UK), QuillsCCPA MonitorNew Orphic ReviewHorsefly, Elephant Mountain Review, and elsewhere. His history and non-fiction books are A Perfect Childhood: One Hundred Years of Heritage Homes in Nelson (Nelson Museum & Historical Society, 1997); Hanging Fire & Heavy Horses: A History of Public Transit in Nelson (City of Nelson, 2000); and Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Canada’s Home Children in the West (Hagios Press, 2014). His books of poetry are The Charlatans of Paradise (2005), Star Seeds (2009), The Price of Transcendence (2015), Dead Crow: Prologue (2016), and Poems for the Home Children (2018). He is also the author of the novel Mountain Blues (Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2018). Art Joyce lives in New Denver.

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