July 30, 2004

Doing the Kenosha kid

At the end of one of our obsessive efforts to construe a puzzling song line, I mentioned "the extended riff in Gravity's Rainbow on the phrase 'you never did the Kenosha kid'". A couple of readers asked me about this. I guess it's worth going over, if only to show that somebody else can be just as overanalytically playful as we sometimes are. Of course, this was a fictional character in a drug-induced delirium, but we'll take our role models where we can find them.

The context is London in 1944, when a thousand V2 rockets were raining down. The behavior of an American soldier named Tyrone Slothrop has shown an uncanny correlation with V2 landing sites. This is discovered because he puts stars on a map of London to locate his sexual connections, in a pattern which is recognized by a statistician who has been making his own map of rocket strikes. The thing is, Slothrop's hook-ups precede the rockets by a day or so, in what will turn out to be a victory for a farcical generalization of Pavlov over a real application of Poisson. But that's another subject entirely -- the point is that Slothrop's map gets him interrogated under sodium amytal, a technique first documented in 1943 as narcoanalysis, and sometimes referred to as "truth serum".

Sodium amytal, which is known chemically as sodium amobarbitol, is a barbiturate which, when administered intravenously, produces a relaxed and sleepy state in the subject. While in this state the patient tends to become more talkative, uninhibited, and spontaneous with what appears to be less guarded and defensive speech and behavior. Sodium amytal is not “truth serum” and individuals can lie or otherwise report misinformation under the influence of this barbiturate. However, individuals with dissociation of identity typically respond with overt symptoms and signs of their dissociative disorder including flashbacks, abreactions, and visual imagery with narratives by the patient in alternate dissociated identity states.

In Slothrop's case, one of the themes of his reaction to the drug is an obsessive meditation on alternative possible analyses of the six-word sequence "you never did the kenosha kid".

Pynchon's description starts with six alternative construals, organized as four cases with two subcases, and then explains

These changes on the text "You never did the Kenosha Kid" are occupying Slothrop's awareness as the doctor leans in out of the white overhead to wake him and begin the session. The needle slips without pain in the the vein just outboard of the hollow of the in the crook of his elbow: 10% Sodium Amytal, one cc at a time, as needed.

and then gives three more, for a total of nine. The first six construals (four cases) were

(1) A letter is sent from Slothrop (at the address "TDY Abreaction Ward, St. Veronica's Hospital") to "The Kenosha Kid, General Delivery, Kenosha, Wisconsin", asking "Did I ever bother you, ever, for anything, in your life?" The answer comes back

You never did.

The Kenosha Kid

Construals 2, 2.1, 3 and 3.1 are presented as dialogs:

(2) Smartass youth: Aw, did all them old-fashioned dances, I did the "Charleston", a-and the "Big Apple," too!

Old veteran hoofer: Bet you never did the "Kenosha," kid!

(2.1) S.Y.: Shucks, I did all them dances, I did the "Castle Walk," and I did the "Lindy," too!

O.V.H.: Bet you never did the "Kenosha Kid."

(3) Minor employee: Well, he has been avoiding me, and I thought it might be because of the Slothrop Affair. If he somehow held me responsible --

Superior (haughtily): You! never did the Kenosha Kid think for one instant that you ...

(3.1) Superior (incredulously): You? Never! Did the Kenosha Kid think for one instant that you ... ?

Construal (4) is presented in mock-epic narrative form:

(4) And at the end of the mighty day in which he gave us in fiery letters across the sky all the words we'd ever need, words we enjoy today, and fill our dictionaries with, the meek voice of little Tyrone Slothrop, celebrated ever after in tradition and song, ventured to filter upward to the Kid's attention: "You never did 'the,' Kenosha Kid!"

The construal numbered (5) -- which is the seventh if we count the variants (2.1) and (3.1) -- comes as a verb-final accusation:

(5) Maybe you did fool the Philadelphia, rag the Rochester, josh the Joliet. But you never did the Kenosha kid.

Number (6) -- or eight -- is one side of another conversation in a strangely imagined context:

(6) (The day of the Ascent and sacrifice. A nation-wide observance. Fats searing, blood dripping and burning to a salty brown ... ) You did the Charlottesville shoat, check, the Forest Hills foal, check. (Fading now ... ) The Laredo lamb, check. Oh-oh. Wait. What's this, Slothrop? You never did the Kenosha kid. Snap to, Slothrop.

Then there's 10 Kenosha-free pages featuring dream-sequence flashbacks to a jazz club in Roxbury MA (with a cameo appearance by Malcolm X as a shoeshine boy), and a long fantasy about Crutchfield the Westwardman and his Afro-Norwegian sidekick Whappo. Finally, back in dreamland Roxbury, the chapter ends with one last unnumbered variant:

In the shadows, black and white holding in a panda-pattern across his face, each of the regions a growth or mass of scar tissue, waits the connection he's traveled all this way to see. The face is as weak as a house-dog's, and its owner shrugs a lot.

Slothrop: Where is he? Why didn't he show? Who are you?

Voice: The Kid got busted. And you know me, Slothrop. Remember? I'm Never.

Slothrop (peering): You, Never? (A pause.) Did the Kenosha Kid?

[pp. 60-71 of the 1995 Penguin edition]


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 30, 2004 10:15 AM