Joseph McElroy (Photo by Peter Chin)
Stanley Elkin describes Joseph McElroy’s fiction as “the mazy coil of an educated, complex vision,” and “The Man with the Bagful of Boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne” (excerpted from his collection Night Soul and Other Stories) exemplifies what Elkin’s talking about. At one level, this story is busy with phantom characters and the narrator’s cycling behavior and chaotic psychology. And at another, it’s rich with allusions to literature and lore, taking on the slight flavor of a nineteenth century Gothic horror, which is not in McElroy’s other stories, but makes for an apt addition here because of the setting. For me, the knot of confusion over invention at the heart of this story is as playful as it is unsettling—“I made him up out of what I knew, and I assumed he was too authentic to have time to make me up.”
—Jason DeYoung (who reviews McElroy new story collection here)
He was not to be confused with my new friends or my old. He was there before I found him and he did not care about being discovered. I knew him by a thing he did. He threw boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne. If he heard any of my questions, he kept them to himself. Perhaps we were there to be alone, I in Paris, he in the Bois that sometimes excludes the Paris it is part of.
But what makes you think Paris will still be there when you arrive? inquires a timeless brass plate embedded in the lunch table and engraved with an accented French name. Well, I’m in Paris, after all; that was obvious even before I sat down with my friend who invited me to meet him here, though the immortal name I put my finger on, that frankly I don’t quite place, might have been instead that of the burly American who’s also, I’m told, here somewhere staring in brass off a table—far-flung American name once commonly coupled with Paris itself. So now, like a memorial bench in a park, a table bears his name, that fighter who once clued us all in that you make it up out of what you know, or words to that effect. His pen (or sharpened pencil) had more clout even than his knuckles.
What is the name of that famous burly writer who lunched at this consequently famous restaurant? Out there past the brass plaques and dark wood surfaces and the warm glass and the conversation, the city doesn’t happen to answer. Not a student descending from a bus; not a woman hurrying by with two shopping bags like buckets; not a man in the street I’ve seen in many quarters carrying under his arm a very long loaf of bread and once or twice wearing a motorbike helmet. He is probably not the man my French friends patiently hear me describe, who is my man in the Bois whose very face suggests the projectiles he carries in a bag, a cloth bag I didn’t have to make up, to contain those projectiles in the settled November light of late afternoon in the Bois when I begin my run.
Which man? The man with the bagful of boomerangs, wooden boomerangs one by one, old and nicked and scraped and shaped smooth to the uses of their flight, one or two taped like the business end of a hockey stick. When I arrived, coming down the dirt path toward a great open green, and broke into my jog, he was there. And he was there when I wound my way back three or four miles later, in later light, around me the old cognates of trees, of dusk, of leaves, crackling under foot. Yet, veering down hedged paths, past thickets where dogs appear, and piney spaces with signs that say WALK, to surprise a parked car where no car can drive, and across the large, turned-over earth of bridle paths, and around an unexpected chilly pond they call a sea, a lake, that has hidden away for this year its water lilies, I could sometimes lose myself with the deliberateness of the pilgrim runner whose destination is unknown and known precisely as his sanctuary is the act of running itself. So I find I am beside the children’s zoo, or so close to some mute lawn girdled by traffic thinking its way home that I can plot my peripheral position sensing I am near both the Russian Embassy and the Counterfeit Museum. Or I can’t see Eiffel’s highly original wind-stressed “tree” anywhere, whereas here’s a racecourse that I know, so now I must be running in the other direction toward Boulevard Anatole France and the soccer stadium. But I am still meditating the famed water jumps of the other racecourse, and turning back in search of the Porte d’Auteuil Metro, I breathe the smoke of small fires men and boys feed near the great beech trees.
But most often, I ended where the boomerang-thrower was working his way into the declining light. And passed him, because that was my way back to the Metro. He began low, he aimed each of those bonelike, L-shaped, end-over-end handles along some plane of air as if with his exacting eyes he must pass it under a very low bridge out there before it could swoop upward and slice around and back, a tilted loop whose moving point he kept before him pivoting his body with grim wonder and familiarity. As I came near, I would not stop running but I might turn my head, my shoulders, my torso, to try to follow the flight of the boomerang. More than once I felt it behind me, palely revolving, silent as a glider and beyond needing light to cross the private sky of the Bois, which for all its clarity of slope and logical forest is its own shadow and contagion within a metropolis of illuminations balconied, reflected, glimmering, windowed in the frames of casements. More than once I saw the boomerang land near its intent owner, wood against earth. Sometimes he seemed to be launching the whole bagful before proceeding to retrieve. What was his method? He would pick one boomerang up with another or with his foot. One afternoon I must have been early, I was leaving as he arrived; I wanted to know how he started doing this, because we had boomerangs in Brooklyn Heights before the War in a dead-end street looking out from a city cliff to the docks and New York Harbor and the Statue, and we hurled our pre-plastic boomerangs out over the street that ran below that cliff and thought of nothing, not people below, not the windows of apartment houses. I looked this foreign boomerang-thrower in the eye, his the angular face of a hunter looking out for danger, a blue knitted cap, old blue sweatshirt with the hood back like mine. What was he doing off work at four? The things in the bag were alive, their imaginary kite strings resilient.
I come from a city also great, also both beautiful and dark, its people also both abrupt and not distant; and I wanted to (as Baudelaire says) “accost” this boomerang man. However, I could not find the French for what I had to say, remembering that at least in my own language I would know better what I had to say when I began to say it. I had lost one of his boomerangs in the dusk once, but the man himself seemed not to have lost it, although I never saw it land and I heard a sound in the trees near my head.
The French for all I wanted to say, I found in a dream, and there, I think, it stayed. I lived, during those first weeks, alone, consciously located between the light and darkness of living with someone. This person, sometimes mythical, later materialized as if she had never gone away, perhaps because I was the one who had gone. But in those weeks before American Thanksgiving, reaching toward Frost’s “darkest evening of the year,” dreams found their way to my new door and, unlike the daytime clients of the rare stamp dealer (though his metal plate ENTREZ SANS FRAPPER was all I knew of them or him, apart from what I knew of the subject matter of his business, not to mention a slow leak from a water-pressure valve in my kitchen which I heard nothing from him about), my dreams were by contrast both inside my apartment before I knew it and outside knocking like an unknown neighbor in the middle of the night.
At least once during my first dreams, the man with the boomerangs threw them all so that they did not come back. Two French friends of mine said he sounded a little crazy (the way in the United States they say that some poor person is “harmless”). A private citizen was how I took him, a survivor-craftsman testing the air. The boomerangs I dreamt were not some American dream’s disposable weapons; my twilight companion’s resources proved renewable, his boomerangs reusably old and known; this wasn’t some Apache spilling the blood of vowels F. Scott Fitzgerald rendered out of Rimbaud, but a native true to the wood from which the aboriginal implements were cut. I made him up out of what I knew, and I assumed he was too authentic to have time to make me up.
The phone rang and I went out to meet a friend. I checked the Mont-St.-Michel tides and saw a French child on a train wearing a University of Michigan sweatshirt. I came out of the Chartres cathedral and went back inside. I returned to the Jeu de Paume to hear American spoken without hesitation or apology and, from within that temple of light and color, to view through my favorite window the gray spirit of the riverbank—its founded harmonies of palace and avenue, whose foreground proved to be where those water lilies hang, safe-locked in the sister temple of this tennis court, where my three-dimensional fellow wanderers, refusing to disappear into the “Moulin de la Galette” we’re all admiring, crowd about me as if I were my mind. Here, what went up must come down—downstairs, I mean. “What gains admission must find exit,” they say with justice.
But what goes out—does it come back? I cannot help the signs and symbols; they are as actual as the knocking on my Montmartre door at the moment of my dream when at last I completed the invention of the man with the bagful of boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne. It was more urgent even than a phone ringing in the middle of the night, that knock at my front door—was it the concierge?—and I must wake from my dream just when I have at last found the French with which to accost the person I have made up. The stamp dealer went home eight hours ago. Who can it be at the door? Well, you can’t always choose your time to make the acquaintance of a neighbor. I’m out of bed, croaking, “J’arrive, j’arrive” (pleased to recall the more accurate English), walking half in my sleep through someone else’s curtain-insulated rooms to ask in French, “Who’s there? What is it?” only to realize I have heard no more knocks, and to suspect that they were not here upon this front door in the pitch-black hall but back in that bedroom where I left the dream. What a way to gain entrance to an apartment! Knock on the door at three in the morning until you rouse your prey, then express such concern over the nightmare yells and cries he did not even know were coming out of his sleep, that helplessly he opens the door to thank you.
But that was a New York dream. I found the light; I sat on my bed and remembered hearing the French I needed in order to address the boomerang-thrower, only in my dream fluency to pass to a stage in which he spoke to me. Till all the interference in my solitary situation left me in that empty apartment, and the sounds of knocking that had brought me stumbling through rooms I hardly knew faded from me with the French I had found but now lost, though not its sense. For the boomerang man from the Bois had told me what I could not have learned had I not already known it: that if it was worth telling, it was worth keeping secret, how he shied those pieces of himself down into the late autumn, his aim at some distance from him, his boomerangs quarrying not prey but chance which was to cast that old and various loop beyond routine success, dreaming the while of a point where at its outward limit the path’s momentum paused upon a crest of stillness and by the logic of our lunatic hope did not return. In this way, although he will not hear me, he is still there when I go, and here when I come back.
Yet if this is unbelievable, I tried something more down-to-earth. One cold afternoon I spoke; I approached the man and said in French that I had not seen a boomerang thrown “since” thirty years. He answered. He had been throwing them that long and longer, he said. I asked if he had hunted with them. He looked me up and down, his eyebrows raised, his forehead wrinkled. He had not, he said. And were these the same old boomerangs he had always used? Only this one, he said, raising the one in his hand. Speaking for all of us, I asked if his aim was accurate, though not having the French noun for “aim” (which proves to be but), I asked if, when he threw (lancé) he was toujours exact. In English, then, he said, “American?” We smiled briefly; we nodded. “You jog,” he said slowly, “I throw boomerangs.”
“I used to throw a boomerang as a child,” I said in French.
He was looking downrange, shaking the boomerang in his hand downward at arm’s length, first one big shake, then a series of diminishing shakes. “Moi aussi,” I heard him say.
Like a knife-thrower pointing at his target, he launched his toy. Like a passerby, I continued on my way.
—Joseph McElroy, from Night Soul and Other Stories, Dalkey Archive Press, 2011
- “Joe McElroy Introduction,” Stanley Elkin, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 1990, Vol. X, No. 1, page 7.↵