America's Magic Mountain by Curtis White, Paperback

America's Magic Mountain by Curtis White, Paperback

Filled with many compelling, outrageous, and comic voices, White's novel is disturbing, charming, and biting. Curtis White's new novel begins with Mann's...

Product Details

Publisher:Dalkey Archive Press
Publication date:11/15/2004
Series:Lannan Selection Series
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 7.92(h) x 0.72(d)
Age Range:18 Years
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America's Magic Mountain by Curtis White

Filled with many compelling, outrageous, and comic voices, White's novel is disturbing, charming, and biting. Curtis White's new novel begins with Mann's "unassuming young man," Hans Castorp, visiting his cousin at a health retreat. In this book, though, the retreat is a spa for recovering alcoholics, totally unlike all other rehab centres. Rather than encouraging their patients to free themselves from addiction, the directors of The Elixir believe that sobriety isn't for everyone, that you must let alcohol work its way on you. It is about a weird and unlikely world that, nevertheless, is quite recognisable as our own.

Product Details

Publisher:Dalkey Archive Press
Publication date:11/15/2004
Series:Lannan Selection Series
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 7.92(h) x 0.72(d)
Age Range:18 Years

About the Author

Curtis White is the author of the novels Memories of My Father Watching TV and Requiem. A widely acclaimed essayist, his work appears regularly in Context and Harper's. He is an English professor at Illinois State University and the current president of the Center for Book Culture/Dalkey Archive Press

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Dalkey Archive Press

Copyright © 2004 Curtis White
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-56478-369-3

Chapter One

An unassuming young man was traveling north by train from his home in Downstate, Illinois. When I say that this young man was "unassuming," I mean not merely that he assumed nothing about where he was going or what might happen to him once he got there, but that he could assume almost nothing, because-as our story will make clear-he knew little of the world outside of the absurdly narrow purview provided by textbooks in what was called Industrial Psychology. This is not, however, to say that this young man lacked intelligence. To understand his capacities one has only to imagine the possibility of a boy whose life consisted of being shoved from box to box: from the home box to the school box to the college-dorm box and now, finally, to the very edge of the factory box. In this he was not a lot different from American boys and girls of other eras past and future. That he never ventured forth from any of these boxes-until this momentous trip by train-says something only about his willingness to trust and, yes, his essential timidity.

At any rate, break forth he had now, for he planned a two-week stay at a recovery spa. The Elixir was tucked in among a squat range of mountains, or mountain-like things, more like hills,that had been formed by the slag heaps left behind by a now-vanished coal industry. Our young man, Hans Castorp, wasn't very clear about this place to which he journeyed other than that it was not far from the railroad line that ran between St. Louis and Chicago, and that he was to get off at the first stop after Dwight. Oddly, the stop didn't have a name.

The Elixir itself was located near Coal City. Its peculiar history is at the center of much of our story. Regional spas and their cures were being featured on the covers of every upscale magazine in the country. Investment analysts regularly marveled at the performance of stocks associated with the treatment of what the popular press called "boutique diseases." These diseases gave the wealthy an exhilarating sense of their own romantic participation in the suffering caused by the New Global Order's tendency to rub humanity raw. For example, one of these diseases, officially designated by the American Medical Association and classified as a kind of neuralgia, produced symptoms including a "feigned logical regression," with the prognosis that the "supranational subject will finally fail to integrate itself in the communicative order leading to a precarious solution." This "precarious solution" meant nothing other than what we used to call death. In the end, the sentimentality of death had no role in the medical science of the New Order. We're better off, the medical establishment decided, without the complicated concept of death; it just made citizens nervous and reluctant to participate in the marvels of the present.

At any rate, the response to these medical crises was, naturally, to provide more intense privileges for the rich. That much at least was as it had ever been. Thus the birth of the modern spa, places where the ultra-rich could escape their weighty responsibilities. Of course, such matters were arranged differently in Illinois. Chicagoland's wealthy and privileged were still perfectly capable of jetting off to resorts in the vestiges of New England's caterpillar-tattered forests. Nonetheless, for whatever obscure reason, a state like Illinois will have its own blue-collar (if also laughable) equivalent of whatever it imagines that the rich have. And so with money from one subterranean state agency (a special bureau in Fish and Game) and the generous contributions of the DeKalb Soybean Foundation, The Elixir was established. It promptly filled with Illinois's purest products.

Our young man, however, had to take one marvel at a time. And at just this point he was wondering about the world that sped by his train window. His trip crossed only one kind of country, the country of corn. Being a finally bright (if "boxed") young man, he wondered why a country composed entirely of corn was called a prairie. Who ate all this corn? People must eat an awful lot of cornflakes and corn bread. Certainly, much more than he ate.

Hans Castorp sat alone on the train, his tawdry and antique American Tourister suitcase-a present from his aunt-at his side. He'd thought at first that his aunt had given him a sort of family heirloom in this old luggage. He was touched by the gesture and it was part of the reason he'd been willing to make this trip. Later, though, he found the illuminating name "Jaime Flores, Wicker Park, Chicago" written with crude black marker on the inside. The thing smelled of the Salvation Army.

His aunt was, in fact, largely responsible for this trip. She was concerned about her son Ricky, who was a resident at The Elixir. Hans was astonished by the urgency of her request. He couldn't quite comprehend it. She was "concerned" for Ricky? Even though she was not willing to make the trip herself, his aunt was perhaps expressing a very late-in-developing vestigial human feeling: Care. Bless her for it, whatever the particulars of her own past (to which we'll come in due time). Still, we shouldn't be surprised if Hans found the idea a bit alien. At any rate, his aunt's concern was an acceptable excuse for doing what Hans wanted to do anyway: go on a post-graduation adventure and see the world (to the degree that a boy such as he would know how to do such a thing).

As with most other things in his life, young Hans had not imagined, let alone intended, that this trip would be serious. No. I cannot claim, nor should we imagine, that Hans was "serious." For example, he had entered Industrial Psychology not because it interested him but because his college advisor had recommended that he study IP, and Hans could not understand why he would bother to seek advice if he weren't going to take it. And nothing about his trip to this point should have provoked him to seriousness in spite of his aunt's surprising anxiety. There was a monotony of corn and soy beans on all sides. The only visible thing that was other than field was that which gave the fields some definition: withered, degraded, contemptible culverts and gullies where a few morose creatures-bug-eyed raccoons like war-orphan-poster-children-were reduced to a life of crepuscular and barnacle-like clinging. But Hans was a boy who knew nothing more about what the land ought to look like than we do. Then as now, the land was under the burden of centuries of human intent.

Soon, the oceans of corn engendered a certain forgetfulness. A certain obliviousness. A certain opaqueness. The sheer vastness of the spectacle distanced him from his ordinary reality. His future employment to begin soon with the Caterpillar Company of Peoria, Illinois, eternal manufacturers of behemoth earth-moving devices, seemed to him now implausible. For the moment, he was breathing the same air as farmers, people who lived in a way he could barely imagine.

The train sailed this ocean of corn in which these curious farmers waded. It passed wretched little towns and wretched larger towns: Towanda, Lexington, Ballard, Chenoa, Ocoya, Pontiac and Odell. It was a world where vinyl siding, the last-gasp effort at decency, was all dented and peeling and fallen and faded. It was wholly solemn and disappointing and this was not lost on our dweller-among-college-dorms.

At last, the train came to a station, a very small station, in fact nothing more than a collapsing brick shack. The conductor came by removing seat checks from overhead, including Hans's.

"Are we here already?" asked Hans.

The conductor smiled. It was a smile both tense and relaxed. It was the habitual smile of train conductors. It expressed boredom, disdain, petty privilege, laziness, and anxiety. "Here?" he loomed, "where is here for you, son?"

Hans heard this question very literally. It didn't make sense to him. "Where is here for you?" What could such a question mean?

The conductor tried to be more helpful. "Where are you going?"

"Oh, my aunt has asked me to see my cousin Ricky."

Now the disdainful part of the smile became truly magnificent. "And where is Ricky?"

"Ricky's at The Elixir."

The conductor returned brusquely to collecting tickets, muttering bitterly in his wake, "This is it. Get off here."

But, for our boy, being told to get off here seemed dangerous. Okay, the train trip had been fine, but what was outside the train? The little station looked dead. It was a very gray world. Perhaps it was just the dirty window. He opened it and looked outside, but if anything the air was even dirtier, like looking through dusty cheese-cloth. He was almost relieved not to see his cousin. But there, indeed, at last, loping through the gloom, was an older version of the boy Hans clearly remembered as his cousin.

"Hans," Ricky yelled, "get off."

But something deep was speaking to Hans. "Don't get off," a voice said. "This is the Village of the Damned."

Hans yelled back to his cousin, "This is not the place, Ricky! This is not where I'm going!"

"Yes, this is it, for God's sake. Why else am I here? Hurry! The train only pauses at this station."

"No! This can't be it!"

"Get off the train, Hans, or you'll end up in Joliet, or worse, Chicago."

Chicago. Beirut with baseball. A place of unspeakable horror for Industrial Psychology majors. Hans grabbed his luggage and hurried for the door.

When Ricky greeted him, there were no hugs or even handshakes. Ricky clicked his heels in a vaguely military gesture that seemed strange to Hans since he was aware that Ricky's gloomy condition made him 4-F. It only made sense in that Ricky had always had a fondness for guns and shooting things, especially little birds. When Hans heard stories on TV about endangered species, the grisly little corpses that had fallen to Ricky's youthful BB gun would flash before his mind.

"It's been a long time since then, eh, Cousin?" asked Ricky, winking absurdly.

That was a strange thing to say, thought Hans. Since when? What "then" did Ricky refer to?

"Yes, it has been a long time, Ricky," he replied. Hans reached for his cousin's shoulder to give him a hug. He wished to establish a feeling of warmth. Ricky accepted his hug, but when their cheeks touched Hans recoiled. There was something cold and wet about Ricky's skin. It was as if his face were made of pastry dough.

A taxi driver was looking on as the two young men greeted each other. He had a large badge that spelled out NGUMBE. He seemed anxious to get Hans and Ricky to a cab. But before he could, another black man, a Haitian, came up and began arguing with him. Hans read his tag. LA CHENIER. The two men seemed just embarked on a long dialogue destined to steadily grow and expand. It was obviously going to end up somewhere very messy. They had just reached the index-finger-to-the-chest stage of discussion when a third man, a Middle-Eastern man, stood up from a group of five who crouched beneath blankets by the wall of the tiny, collapsing brick station. He walked over calmly, took Hans's suitcase and then walked toward what Hans had assumed was the first man's taxi. He hurled the suitcase in through the open passenger-side window and got behind the steering wheel.

Ricky looked on. "We'd better go with him, old boy, if you ever want to see your suitcase again."

While Ngumbe and the Haitian remained locked in their idiotic debate, the cousins got in the back of the taxi.

"Don't these men each have their own cabs?"

Ricky lit a cigarette and looked at Hans with the bemusement of a veteran. "Not here, old boy. Not here."

"But what gives this homeless man, if that is what he is, the right to drive this taxi?"

"Any one of them could, if they dared. It's all in what you have the nerve for here."

"But those drunks there ...?"

"Easy, Cousin. We shouldn't aggravate the situation. He'll get us home safely." Ricky smiled at his cousin. It was a perplexing smile. Hans could not tell if it was reassuring or malicious. He could not tell if his cousin's smile was telling him something about where he was beginning his adventure or something about where it was to end. His cousin's smile seemed to tell him that he was being pressed forward into a world where his ultimate discoveries would be nothing other than the revealing of the principles without which nothing could even have begun. But there was nothing really for him to do with his insight. After all, he was in a taxi. Taxis go from point A to point B. They do not dissolve because of the illumination shed by a second-order insight.

As they rode along the rutted dirt road, Hans thought back to his childhood impression of Ricky as a bigger, stronger boy then he. Ricky was always the country boy to the suburban Hans. Then Hans recalled in embarrassed discomfort the occasions on which the two cousins had shared their most recent discoveries about their respective adolescent bodies. These conversations were terrifying to Hans. Ricky had told bragging, laughing tales of back-country "boys clubs" of masturbation and anal sex. This was not what Hans wanted to be thinking about at just this moment. He looked over at Ricky, furtively, half dreading that his cousin had somehow overheard his thoughts. He knew he was blushing. His cousin returned his gaze, then looked away, amused.

Hans had not seen much of his cousin since those earlier days. He dimly recalled going fishing once in their teens, staying in a trailer that had been dragged to some desolate Wisconsin lakeside. He recalled that while their fathers finished off bottles of beer in the fishing boat and bottles of vodka in the trailer, he was driven by an excitable Ricky in and out of dark pine groves in a large American car. A Buick, if he recalled. His cousin never seemed to have more than one hand on the wheel or one eye on the road. The only thing worse than those rides was actually having to take that fatal step back into the metal hulk, the rusting blue and white trailer, where their fathers soaked in a neutral grain brine. Hans particularly remembered the size of his uncle Don's plastic cup (some absurd Taco Joint 32-ounce thing with cartoon characters on the side, Yosemite Sam and the Tasmanian Devil, better suited for watering flowers than for drinking). Uncle Don would open a new bottle of cheap vodka from the supermarket and pour it into the cup right to the rim. He remembered his uncle sipping at the brimming cup and smiling like some lost little boy who didn't want to spill his milk. Within the hour, it would all be gone.

Hans pulled himself from these reveries. He remembered his aunt's charge to him: "Find out how Ricky is. Bring him home if you can."


Excerpted fromAMERICA'S MAGIC MOUNTAINbyCURTIS WHITE Copyright © 2004 by Curtis White . Excerpted by permission.
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