"Motherly Business" and the Moves to Manhood
Young men often begin to mature when they find themselves moving out into the world, mov-ing away from home, moving away from their mothers as a defining figure in their lives. In Bruce Brooks' The Moves Make the Man, Chris Crutcher's Stotan!, and Walter Dean Myers' Fallen Angels this connection between male identity and the mother figure is at the heart of each novel. These novels share common threads through which they illuminate the mother/son relationship. All three deal with forms of combat, both physical and mental, with competition, with a struggle to survive in a life-threatening situation, a struggle that each novelist turns into a metaphor for living. In The Moves Make the Man a son loses his mother to mental illness; in Stotan! physical and mental abuse define the relationship between a young athlete and his mother, and in Fallen Angels the struggle to stay alive for one year in the Vietnamese jungles, far from mother and home, lead a young soldier to self-discovery. All three novels present the mental processes of narrators who are "minding" life, languaging themselves and others into being by the words with which they construct narratives. As participant observers the narrators watch, listen, and write, weaving us into their texts, encouraging us to construct ourselves in memory and imagination.
The Moves Make the Man is a meta-narrative: when we meet Jerome Foxworthy, he tells us that he is writing a book about his friend Bix Rivers, and the book we read is his book. We participate in its construction, and writing it is one of Jerome's moves. The "Moves" of the title refer specifically to basketball as Jerome teaches Bix, a star baseball player, how to play his favorite game. For Bix these moves are not simply part of the joy of sport; they are essential tools in the survival kit that he puts together as his home life disintegrates. The moves he learns become, finally, a metaphor for playing the serious game of life. The novel juxtaposes Jerome's single-parent home, held together by his strong Momma, and Bix's deteriorating home, where a cold, insensitive stepfather stands in for Bix's absent mother.
In its broadest outline, the story that Jerome narrates covers one calendar year. Also known as "Jayfox," Jerome, twelve years old, was the first and only black student to integrate the largest white school in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he meets and befriends Bix Rivers. We learn how different their lives are; Jayfox's fatherless home nurtures him and gives him security in the guidance of his powerful mother while Bix lives with the uncertainty of his brooding stepfather and the trauma of his mother's hospitalization for mental illness at Duke Hospital. In the central conflict of the novel Bix, who has not been allowed to visit his mother, challenges his stepfather to a game of basketball; if he wins, his stepfather agrees to take him to Duke. Jayfox teaches Bix the moves, he wins the challenge, goes to Duke, makes his most difficult move, and runs away from Wilmington at the end of the novel. Jayfox subsequently gets Bix's school notebook, and from Bix's words and his own memory, he writes the story, telling us as readers, "You just listen to me and you'll be getting the story, all you want . . . It's me gets to tell the truth" (pp. 4-5).
The novel builds to two climactic scenes which set the mothers together as markers of their sons' identities. In the first, Jayfox invites Bix to his home for dinner, where Bix makes all the wrong moves, embarrassing Jayfox and his mother. In the second, Jayfox accompanies Bix and his stepfather to Duke Hospital to visit Bix's mother. Jerome prepares us for these scenes from the earliest pages of the novel where he contrasts the two mothers.
As he begins his narrative, Jayfox tells us when he first saw Bix and his mother at a baseball game, where he is fascinated with Bix's moves as shortstop for the Seven-Ups:
I could not take my eyes off that shortstop. He was the only kind I had ever seen who seemed to know with every part of himself just what to do on every single play. His feet were always placed just right to go along with his throwing motions or his gloving, his head was always turned the right way, his steps never left him on the wrong foot when he needed to jump or spin. It was a kind of concentration I had never seen except maybe in Bill Russell once when the Celtics came to Raleigh . . . . (p. 21)
This first impression of Bix as a superlative athlete contrasts sharply to the Bix that Jayfox later encounters in the school.
Bix's mother arrives to watch her son play, and she is the complement to Bix's perfection on the field. Describing the scene, Jerome compares his mother to the beautiful woman who arrives recklessly, roaring up the street in a metallic blue car, screeching to a stop near the third base line and watching the game from part of the playing field:
She was about the most beautiful woman I ever saw. I think my momma is pretty and stronger-looking than any other person, but this white woman just knocked you in the eye like looking at that painting of a tree hanging over a lake in the state museum which I always stare at when I go there and nearly cry for I don't know what. (p. 23)
The woman is a vision of brightness and light: Her skin is "this golden color"; she "gave off light right off her face and her arms and everything that showed. Her hair was all flashing too" (p. 23). Her dress, "everything about the way she was gotten up," catches his eye and those of other onlookers. Again, he sees her in relation to his own mother: "She wore this black dress with all kinds of style. It looked as natural on her as an apron on my momma" (p. 23). But something disturbs him; her behavior is "weird," and her voice as she responds to Bix's play is the "main weird thing": "It was all wound up and then let go and it nearly escaped from her every time like a wild bird. She was yelling one strange sound the whole time: BIX BIX BIX" (p. 24).
As Jayfox remembers the scene one year later, he interprets her behavior and Bix's response to her. He feels sorry for Bix because it "was like he was more adult than she was," because he realizes that Bix "was aware of her foolishness but also her admiration and motherly business or whatever it was." He contrasts her behavior with what he calls "just plain old momma's love"; he knows that something is missing, that there is "something she was straining to have or make up for, to Bix and to her too. It was very complicated and I couldn't figure it out clearly but I could see it without a doubt." Jayfox constructs a simile for this missing component; it's "like when somebody without an arm takes off his shirt for gym class and you get a look at his stump and it's red and splotchy but of course you can't mind because it's not his fault" (p. 24). This simile functions metonymically to suggest that Bix's mom is not whole, its focus on the absence of an arm an ironic contrast to the physical perfection of the son's play: the arm creates an image of brokenness that foreshadows her absence from home, from Bix's life.
Ironically, Jayfox's Momma becomes broken, too, hospitalized when an elevator cable snaps and the elevator falls four floors. She "was all broken and twisted and bleeding out of both her ears" (p. 82). He and his two brothers assume the responsibility of running the house, but Jayfox worries about the effect of the accident on his mother's mind, whether "she had gotten a little of her smarts knocked out." He reflects on "how fragile all the ways of being intelligent are": "So many things whizzing around in there, ideas and quicknesses and a smell for the truth, all hooking up the right way to make you do the things you do." He fears the loss of function, much like the image of the lost arm in his references to Bix's mother: "I couldn't help but think a crash like Momma's would maybe bust a few quicknesses, cut some of the sense of truth, and you would not be able to notice what was not there any longer" (p. 124). His concern for truth links him to Bix's mother as his friendship with Bix grows, as Bix learns the basketball moves that will allow him to defeat his stepfather.
Truth becomes an issue in the developing relationship between the young athletes, and one move that Bix will not practice is a fake because, he says, it is not a true move. Jayfox is puzzled by his friend's attitude, by the mystery that surrounds some of his thinking. A confrontation erupts during one their practice sessions as Bix talks about the seriousness of the game in terms of truth: "This is the game for the truth. This is where truth comes up the winner. I can't expect you to understand" (p. 199). This statement precipitates the turning point of the novel as Jayfox releases his frustration and anger at Bix's guardedness, at his unwillingness to talk about his feelings:
If I am such a badass sinner, save my poor young self from the nasties of the lying life! Come on, Bix, tell me what is it you got to be so high and pure about the truth for. I have put up with your mystery jive for so long, man, I deserve to know or else I am just too sick of your wonderful pureness to stick with you. (p. 200)
In this confrontation Bix asks Jayfox to go with him to Durham to see his mother, and Jayfox replies, "What for, Braxton? To keep you on the truth, to make sure you don't tell no lies to your momma." As soon as he says this Jayfox realizes that he has gone too far, that he "would not be able to help that kid anymore" (p. 201).
Before the "game for the truth," Bix's stepfather reveals why Bix is so obsessed with truth. He tells the bitter story that Bix has been unable to tell, the story of his mother's progressive mental illness, of the night when she came naked into Bix's room, a knife in her hand, awakened Bix, asked him, "Do you love me?" and he answered "No, Mother," meaning only at that moment, not all of the time, how his mother, in despair, went out into the hall, took the knife and "stabbed herself in the wrist and the elbow, where the veins are," how she tried to cut her other wrist, how "she put her fist through the window and jerked her arm back and forth over the glass" (pp. 220-221). The revelation recalls the red and splotchy arm of Jayfox's earlier simile and ties together two of the three scenes in which Bix's mother appears in the novel.
After this heart-breaking story, the game begins, but Bix cannot win until he makes the "first fake of his life" (p. 223), a move with which he draws a circle, a symbolic hoop, around himself so that he "was playing by himself out on that court," so that Jayfox and the stepfather are out of circumference, "Out of the picture," Jerome realizing that "it would be almost impossible to get through enough to stop Bix's moves or to help him" (p. 224). The win insures that Bix will go to Duke to see his mother for what becomes the ultimate defining mother/son event of the novel.
After the game Jayfox thinks that he is getting closer to Bix, and he makes one more move before the trip to Duke, a move all about mothering. Feeling that Bix could "probably use a little piece of family goods" (p. 228), he invites him to dinner with a motive: He wants Bix to meet his Momma:
I wanted Bix to love Momma. I wanted him to see how grand she was and be knocked out and just love her. I thought this would be good. I did not think anything about it might be cruel, flaunting my together momma next to his electric shock momma crazy in the hospital. (p. 231)
The language of the contrasting mother images captures the unthinking cruelty of which adolescents are capable, and Jayfox's innocent desire turns to disaster. The plan fails. Bix shows how well he has learned his moves: volunteering to provide dessert, he brings an apple pie, a fake made from Ritz crackers; he and Jayfox have learned to make this pie in their home economics class. Bix puts on a "show that was one hundred percent total pure jive" (p. 237), so successfully faking out the family that Jerome's brother Maurice, studying psychology, sees Bix as "the most perfectly adjusted kid of the world" (p. 236). As they eat the dessert only Momma and Jayfox perceive the "lie," understand that the whole evening has been Bix's grand deception, a dazzling move, a painful fake. Perhaps Bix cannot face a world where Momma is whole, where sons are secure in mother love. In this scene the pie becomes a symbol of Bix's loss, of the absence of the "true" food of a mother's love, his symbolic construction of what the lie "No, Mother" has cost him. In his sadness, for his Momma and for himself, Jayfox, the storyteller, realizes the meaning of this event: "There really were no words for Bix when he went off my map" (p. 243), the map a metaphor for understanding the psychology of their travels together and a foreshadowing of Bix's final move out of the geography of their lives.
Jayfox describes the stepfather, Bix, and himself as a "little troop of gloom" as they move through the hospital toward Bix's mother; when they see her, illness has tragically transformation the beautiful mother at the ballfield. For Jayfox her appearance erases her role as mother: "I would never have said that person on the bed was anybody's momma" (p. 264). The once golden hair lays "flat and waxy, no shine"; the "color was gone from what flesh there was left"; and the "eyes looked out at you and you saw they were deep, but there was nothing behind them, only just an empty room far away waiting to be filled up with whatever fell in front of the gaze" (pp. 264-265). As Bix moves to give her flowers and to call her "Mother," she asks, "Whose little boy are you?" Her question constitutes the ultimate erasure of Bix as her son, and it is more than he can stand. In response he makes "the greatest single move in history," pulls "the fastest and completest fake possible" (p. 267) by moving to the woman in the bed next to his mother, embracing her and sobbing loudly, "MOTHER MOTHER MOTHER." His own mother looks on and comments, "Look, she said to her husband beside her, look--he loves his mommy . . . But Hazel does not recognize him . . . It's sad, you see" (pp. 268-269). At this moment, however, she begins to recognize Bix; Jayfox sees that she has a "question in her somewhere all of a sudden" (p. 269), and Bix sees the change, too. He quickly tells Hazel "Good-by, Mother" and walks out of the room, Jayfox knowing that "I could not get into Bix," and realizing the power of this last fake, that "at the heart he had tried to save everyone some pain" (pp. 272-273). Bix is gone when his mother finally connects, her tragic shrieks of "BIIIIXXXXX BIIIIIXXXXX BIIIIXXXXX" turning her into a wild animal "twisting and bucking and snarling and whipping every part of herself as far as she could" (p. 273), a tragic counterpoint to her first appearance at the ballgame.
And, finally, Jayfox's identity becomes a function of Bix's mother: in the melee of her madness, her elbow hits him in full force, symbolically "right between the eyes" (p. 274) with which he has witnessed her story. In this act the splotchy stump of an arm in Jerome's simile and the bloody arm in the windowglass of the stepfather's "true" story become reality in Jayfox's life, and for the first time he joins Bix as a victim of the mother's disintegration. Her presence in his life becomes a defining moment; the blow results in "a crack in my head" (p. 278), at once a literal injury that causes him to miss the rest of the school year and a metaphor of the changes that have taken place in his perception of what a momma can be and become, of how a momma different from his own can shape the future of her son.
The final powerful image of the novel brings Jayfox's written construction of reality to an ironic close. Bix sends him a postcard from Washington DC, and, except for the address, it is wordless. There is no message. As a wordworker Jayfox interprets the absence of text as "the tender Bix reaching out to let me know" or "the next in a long line of great fakes, baby" (p. 280), and he concludes this novel of mommas and their sons with this knowledge: "If nobody else is there to take the fake, then for good or bad a part of your own self will follow it. There are no moves you truly make alone" (p. 280). The uncertain bond that exists between these two sons can perhaps best be captured in Jayfox's language about their entrance into the Duke hospital room: "We stepped up and stood on the edge of the dark and looked in" (p. 263). Growing up requires such stepping up, and for Jerome "looking in" and standing on the edge of darkness become metaphors for writing as discovery in a world where all mommas are not together, where beauty and brightness can turn suddenly dark, where knowledge may become an unwelcome intruder on the innocence of childhood.
Like Jerome Foxworthy in The Moves Make the Man, Walker, the narrator of Chris Crutcher's Stotan! is also a word man: "I'd like to be a writer of some kind," he says "maybe a journalist, maybe a storyteller" (p. 16). The novel tells the story of high school seniors, members of a select band of athletes who prove themselves under the leadership of their Korean coach Max Il Song to be both stoic and spartan, champion swimmers who experience the joys of the winning season around which Crutcher frames his novel. As a consequence of the experience he shares with his three team mates Lion, Jeff, and Nortie, Walker concludes at the end of the novel that he will be translator of experience:
I think my job in this life is to be an observer. I'm never going to be one of those guys out there on the tip of the arrow of my time, presenting new ideas or inventing ways to get more information on a smaller chip. But I think I'll learn to see pretty well. I think I'll know how things work -- understand simple cause and effect -- and, with any luck, be able to pass that on." (p. 182)
In Stotan! he chronicles moments in the individual lives of four members of the swim team at Frost High School, but he weaves in one family story, focusing on a mother/son relationship in which Nortie Wheeler and his mother are defined by the abuse of a power hungry father and husband who is connected to a neo-Nazi group. Walker tells the story of how and why he and two teammates rescue both Nortie and his mother from abuse so devastating that it has, years earlier, caused Nortie's older brother to commit suicide. Although part of Nortie's identity is constructed by the principles of strength and endurance in becoming a Stotan, it is also constructed as part of his mother's identity and the abuse of which they are both victims. Although Crutcher divides the novel into chapters, these are subdivided into dated sections, suggesting that they are part of Walker's journal beginning on November 5 and ending on March 10.
The story of Nortie's abuse begins on November 14 as Walker tells us that he has confronted Nortie earlier about the abuse but that Nortie has ignored him; he recalls Nortie's mother wearing sunglasses even on dark days, her long sleeves covering her bruised arms. We learn that Nortie has planned to be a teacher until Walker tells us on December 1 that Nortie has struck a child at the Eastside Childcare Center, that he fears becoming like his dad, that his brother committed suicide at age thirteen because "he was tired of feeling like hell" (p. 45). Following Stotan Week (December 17-21), Walker's January 2 entry tells us that the abusive father has discovered that Nortie has a black girlfriend and that he has beaten his son him severely. When Walker, Jeff, and Lion go to rescue their teammate, they also rescue his mother after her husband backhands her and knocks her to the floor. This traumatic event leads Walker to think hard about why this mother and her son endure such abuse. They are, he says, people who "just go on looking like everything's okay. I mean, Nortie and his mom look like regular people most of the time. It must take a lot of courage to pull that off." He defines Nortie and his mother in their odd behavior: "I mean, a reasonably intelligent woman goes back to a man who beats her up two or three times a week"; and a kid who "has that exact same life" stays there, not only that, but he "lied and told stories to explain away cuts and bruises and lumps to protect the guy who was giving them to him" (p. 104). Their behavior is an enigma to him.
After the rescue, Nortie moves in with Walker, and Mrs. Wheeler stays with a friend although she soon returns to the house. In the January 21 entry, Walker reports that Nortie has come to realize that he must separate himself from the abuse, that he cannot protect his mother, that "the best thing he can ever do is stay away and not fan the flames" (p. 117). He devotes himself to experiments in psychology, and on February 17 when the boys learn that their teammate Jeff is dying from a blood disease, Nortie brings the perspective of his painful experiences to their shock: "Listen, you guys, the bad stuff is real" (p. 147), explaining that his brother's suicide note to him had read "Sorry. The bad stuff is real. All of it" (p. 148). In the final entry, March 10, we learn that in the 400 freestyle relay the team wins and Nortie turns in an outstanding performance. As Walker interprets the meaning of their experience, he decides that he will spend his adulthood "dispelling myths, clearing up unreal expectations" such as the one in which the good guys are rewarded and the bad guys are punished, an assumption that "vanishes into thin air. Nortie certainly never did anything to warrant the horror of his life, and Jeff sure isn't one of the bad guys" (pp. 181-82).
While this mother/son relationship is not as central to the novel as it is in The Moves Make the Man, the implication is that Nortie's concept of home includes family unity, includes loyalty to his mother, perhaps includes the hope that he can rescue her as he was unable to rescue his brother, that such a rescue will define him as a man. He learns, I think, that adults make choices and that he cannot choose for his mother, but he can choose for himself. In moving out of his home, he chooses an identity and begins to define himself positively as an individual, not as a repository of family shame.
The mother of the central character in Walter Dean Myers' Fallen Angels never appears in the action of the novel; "mother" is an idea, a memory to Richie Perry, a seventeen-year-old black high school graduate serving a one year tour of duty in Vietnam. Perry shares a talent for writing with Jayfox and Walker, but necessity invents the form in which he writes: polite and diplomatic letters to the mothers of dead soldiers, the "fallen angels" of the title, and letters to his brother Kenny and his Mama, letters which at first do not tell the truth of war. Richie tells us of his earlier plans, "my dream really, had been to go to college, and to write like James Baldwin" (p. 15).
Myers captures the horrors of the war by juxtaposing a letter which Richie writes at the beginning of the novel and the kind of letter he imagines at the end of the novel when he has been wounded and seen his comrades fall in violent deaths. Early in his tour of duty, Richie's commanding officer asks him to write a letter to the wife of a young lieutenant; he feels "real bad just being alive to write it" (p. 130), but he is at his polite best, explaining how the lieutenant led them bravely, how grateful they were for that leadership. In contrast to this polite letter, he later imagines another kind of correspondence that would tell the truth about the war. In a scene near the end of the novel his comrades are burned to keep the enemy from mutilating their dead bodies; in the frenzy of the moment the soldiers forget to retrieve the name tags of the dead, and their identities are lost. In his bitterness Richie imagines the kind of letter that would tell the truth of their deaths to their mothers:
We lost your son, ma'am. Somewhere in the forests he lies, perhaps behind some rock, some tree? We burned his body, ma'am. In a rite hurried by fear and panic, we burned what was left of him and ran for our lives. Yes, and we're sorry. (p. 256)
These two kinds of letters frame Richie's war experience, his sense of propriety and innocence in the decorum of the first, his outrage in the horrors of the second.
The letters that Perry writes home undergo a similar metamorphosis from inability to tell the truth about war at first to the final "true" letter that he writes his brother Kenny. As the year progresses, the war redefines him and sets his fears and uncertainties against the stability represented by his mother and home. This redefinition is symbolized by a letter he receives from his mother at a critical point in combat; the letter makes him articulate how war has located him outside "the World" at home:
I needed the people in the World to be okay, and to be the same as when I left them. I was holding on, now, and I needed something to hold on to. I had come into the army at seventeen, and I had remembered who I was, and who I was had been a kid. The war hadn't meant anything to me then, maybe because I hadn't gone through anything like it before. All I had thought about combat was that I would never die, that our side would win, and that we would all go home satisfied. (p. 187)
Death shatters his innocent illusions: ". . . all the killing was making me look at myself again, hoping to find something more than the kid I was." He hopes that he can "sift through all the kid's stuff, the basketball, the Harlem streets, and find the man I would be. I hoped I did it before I got killed" (p. 187). The war has the power to disconnect him from the World, from his mother, from his dreams of manhood.
The letters he writes home protect his mother and brother Kenny from the horrors he witnesses. He sees Kenny as "a bridge between me and Mama," as a person who "could get other people, mostly Mama, into his dreams easier than I could" (p. 88). He distinguishes between himself and Kenny, noting that "Kenny was all Mama had left. She had me, in a way, but not in a real way" because he had come, before he left, to recognize faults in her that Kenny, who loves her "straight up and down," has not yet seen (p. 153). When he tries to write to Kenny, he wants to start the letter off "really cool" (p. 189), but he cannot construct what really happens, the killing. He cannot participate in the image of heroism that people at home hold onto: "Saying that you were trying to stop Communism or stuff like that was different from shooting somebody"; the idea of war, he is learning, differs radically from the practices of war. He wants Kenny to see him as a good soldier, but being a good soldier means killing the enemy, and he cannot write a lie: "Before I went into the army I had thought about being a writer. Teachers said I used words well. But writing that I had done a good job killing just didn't work" (p. 190). War teaches him to use the language of truth, and he thinks that this language is more than his family can bear.
His mother is always present in his mind, and when he is hit by incoming fire, Richie cries out: "O Mama, O Mama, please don't let me die!" (p. 204). Later though, when he tries to write to her, he cannot construct himself as the wounded soldier; he tries to make the letter funny, telling her that "I had been hit in the leg and the wrist and now I was lying up getting fat. I told her that getting fat was my biggest problem" (p. 212). He cannot reconcile the image of himself wounded with the image of himself safe at home, the image to which his mother clings. He juxtaposes the kind of false letter he has tried to write and "a real letter," but he cannot write a "real" one because "I didn't want to say how afraid of dying I had been. I didn't want to say that I had a feeling that I wouldn't get back home" (p. 212). He knows that this knowledge will shatter his mother's hopes for his safe return. His language, then, constructs another Richie, a soldier saving his mother from pain.
Richie knows that he cannot continue to define himself in terms of his mother, but he knows that when he gets back she will "expect me to be the same person"; this identity "could never happen" because of the war: "She hadn't been to Nam. She hadn't given her poncho to anybody to wrap a body in, or stepped over a dying kid" (p. 267). Finally realizing that he does not want Kenny to think of the war "like you do when you go to the movies," (p. 268), he writes home, hoping that the letter will also build a bridge to his mother, prepare her for the son who will return, let her know what filled his thoughts, "the being scared and hearing your heart thumping in your temples . . . the screeches and the booms and the guys crying for their mothers or for their wives" (p. 270). This, the last letter he writes in the novel, serves as a prelude to his last patrol.
Myers ends Fallen Angels with this final patrol and its consequences. Facing death, Richie and Peewee hide in a spider hole, a symbolic grave. Wounded and later rescued, Richie articulates what war has done to his identity: "We had tasted what it was like being dead . . . We weren't all right. We would have to learn to be alive again" (p. 304). Decorated with his second Purple Heart, Richie and Peewee are, in the final scene of the novel, "headed back to the World" (p. 309) in a Freedom Bird, a plane that provides a symbolic resurrection as it rises phoenix-like from the flames of war.
Each of these novels tells a story of mother love, of what happens when the bough breaks, when the cradle falls, when the baby comes tumbling down into reality. With that fall from innocence, from a world view where "mother" means nurture, protection, warmth, and light, Jayfox, Bix, Nortie, and Richie begin their own self-construction in tough worlds, having learned that standing on the edge and looking into the darkness is a necessary move in the business of growing up.
John Noell Moore teaches in the English Department at Virginia Tech, where he is currently writing his dissertation on applying literary critical theories to young adult literature.