Drunk and down but never defeated
Take a broken-hearted, alcoholic English professor, some colleagues seeking his dismissal from the university, several women who desire him for different reasons, and a series of encounters in bars in Charlottesville, Virginia, and you have the basic ingredients of Victor Cabas’s tragicomic “Postmodern Blues” (Hypocrite Press, 2020, 170 pages).
Our wild ride with Jack Shock, the novel’s narrator, begins when he is dumped on a Guatemalan highway by an enraged woman with “the good, tight body of a Golden Gloves bantam-weight and too bad for her, the face to go with it.” A friend rescues Jack from his exile on the lonely road and takes him to the airport, where he catches a plane to the States, having received word that his father is dying.
Waiting to meet him in his father’s house in D.C. is Samantha Callaghan, his lifelong friend, who has watched over his father in his last days. With her long dark hair, blue eyes, and freckled nose, “Sam was the kind of girl Capra would have matched with Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart.”
Jack arrives just in time to say goodbye to his father. Afterwards, he returns to his teaching duties at the University of Virginia, where he and the department chair Vandillingham immediately renew their mutual hatred for each other. Vandillingham spends the rest of the novel trying to find some way to oust Jack, who has tenure, from the department, and Jack doesn’t help matters much by staying plastered on bourbon most of the time, including in the classroom.
Plaguing him as well is his ex-wife Donna, or his wife, as it turns out, since for nefarious reasons she never finalized the divorce papers she had requested he return to her. Jack despises Donna, but she possesses the sexual allure and the power to attract him.
Another in the cast of female ex-lovers is Susan Monteith, a former student who became Jack’s lover after her graduation. In contrast to Donna, she is a sweet soul who genuinely cares for Jack, even in his current condition of distressed and drunk.
Another support for Jack in this chaos and tribulation is Robert Johnson, the long-dead Mississippi blues musician. Jack is a great fan of his music, and plays the blues on his guitar. References to Johnson pop up again and again in the book, including some of his lyrics: “I looked out the mountain, far as I could see/Some man had my woman/And the lonesome blues had me.”
But through all his trials and various loves, it’s Sam he loves the most. A note left him by his father brings Jack, and Sam, some news that could permanently end their growing intimacy, but to say more would spoil the plot.
To give away the ending would do the same, yet here, it seems, Cabas makes a misstep. The reason given for the arrival of some murderous bad guys in Jack’s life, compliments of Donna, makes little sense.
This brief synopsis of “Postmodern Blues” may sound misleadingly grim. Many of the situations in which Jack lands as well as his running commentary on life, his friends and foes, and his drinking bring plenty of smiles. Near the beginning of the novel, for example, Jack meets Charles D. Bledsoe, attorney-at-law, who’s chasing after Sam. “Charley-Boy was about my age and even looked a little like me, but not so scuffed and dinged. To enhance the resemblance, or so I flattered myself, Sam had encouraged him to grow a beard and the result was an effect as manicured and artificial as a plucked eyebrow.”
Here’s a description of his nemesis, Vandillingham, waiting to pounce on Jack: “The great man had stationed himself at the center of the hallway just outside the door, staring stonily as the students flowed past him, left and right. His face was twitching like a cat with a dust bunny on one of its whiskers.”
Like Jack, I’m not a fan of postmodernism in our university lit departments, or anywhere else for that matter, and I got some laughs from his comments on this crew. Of Vandillingham he says, “‘Moby Dick’ was of no more value in his canon than a Mike Marvel comic book.” Of the others in the department who profess “to believe that words had no meaning,” Jack notes: “There were no values and no meanings. As far as I could tell this desert included everything except the oases of their own brilliance. Someday somebody was going to gavel down the whole pretentious business.”
Regrettably, Victor Cabas died in 2018, with the novel on which he had worked off and on for so many years still unpublished. In his Introduction to the book titled “Better Late Than Never,” Caine O’Rear sketches out the man, noting his similarities to Jack Shock, but stressing that “Postmodern Blues” is not a strictly autobiographical novel.
According to O’Rear, and to a former Cabas student I happen to know, Victor Cabas was a beloved teacher at the university who felt, unlike postmodernists, that “books had transformative power and could change lives, and he seemed to genuinely care for each of them (the students).” Because of his own love affair with the bottle until the age of 40, his admiration for the blues, and his musical talents, Cabas was well-known not just among his students, but in Downtown Charlottesville itself, where he frequently performed.
O’Rear writes, “For everyone who knew Victor, and his fans were numerous, we’re lucky to have this record from the man.”
And so am I.