Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Tremor in His Right Hand

My favorite book of all time is a young adult novel by Ellen Raskin, a well-known illustrator who wrote four “puzzle-mysteries,” or novels for older readers, before she passed away, of illness, at age fifty six in 1984. The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues is not as famous as The Westing Game, which won the Newberry Medal in 1979, nor as playfully memorable as The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). Both of these have opaque one-liners and references that true fans know by heart. One friend at college would trade these with me as greetings: “purple waves,” or “Grown a mustache. It’s red!” I used to be able to recite the glub-blubs. The last novel, Figgs and Phantoms, is more oddly mysterious in its exploration of death and afterlife. Raskin was from Wisconsin, which features prominently in Leon I Mean Noel, and the University at Madison has an online compendium of state authors and illustrators. Raskin is one of the authors included and her page contains archival material such as the manuscript of The Westing Game and an audio recording of a presentation in which she discusses The Westing Game, with comments along the way on her other “books without pictures” and the process of her work: It is curious to me that in this speech she says little about the plot of my favorite novel, although she does confess that the house depicted (in Greenwich Village) is hers. She also shares that the core idea that birthed the book was art, a subject not covered in the previous two mysteries. I wonder if her reticence to talk about it stems from its closeness to her primary profession as an artist.
As a child I loved all of these books, but The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues is the one that I continue to read annually to this day. The book’s protagonist is Dickory Dock, a determined and naïve young art student. She takes a job working for Garson, a successful portrait painter for the wealthy; he comes across as callous and superficial but has much to hide. He finds his employee cum apprentice more astute than he expected. Each learns from the other and by the end of the book the lives of both have changed significantly. Through a series of cases in which they aid the New York City Police Department, a gig Garson scores by boasting at a party about his abilities, the two of them hone their skills of observation and perception - seeing through the masks that people routinely employ by solving crimes.
Garson is obsessed with costumes, which are tools of his trade as he dresses up his subjects in suitable roles. The title of my post refers to one of the many teaching games that he plays with Dickory: he routinely shows up to his own house disguised, but Dickory always recognizes him. Her most compelling explanation as to how she does so is to note the tremor in his right hand. Garson’s persona is highly constructed; his uncontrolled tremor seems to represent his real self and/or artistic genius, a quality that he can never fully hide.
I return to this book for many reasons. Certainly I am touched by the sympathetic portrayal of an artist tortured by the truths disclosed in his work. Also, I am moved by the development of the mentor-mentee relationship in which the student, a scrappy New Yorker with her own ghosts, helps her teacher move beyond his own blocks and burdens. [In another game Garson asks Dickory to describe people in one word; his for her is haunted]. The author has, in the guise of a playful book, managed to explore profound issues of truth, art, humanity and identity. I should add that because the emphasis is on portraiture, the focus is on how people present themselves and perceive each other, which means that in the end it is about relationships and how our beliefs about ourselves and each other can keep us from true to ourselves as well as connecting with others. I can no longer remember how much of this I “got” on my first read, but it was enough to keep me coming back. I love too that in the end it is the brutal honesty that the artist so fears that turns out to make everything right, or almost. I would share my favorite line, but it would give everything away. A tension in this post is that I do not want to tell the entire plot, but know that the book is out of print. I have made paper copies in order to share it with others and own two editions, the hard cover a most thoughtful gift from a friend; they never leave my home.
While Raskin, Garson and Dickory are all artists, words are equally important and just as useful in covering and uncovering insights. In the recorded talk Raskin remarks on how she thinks of herself as an artist rather than a writer; I wonder how the interplay of these talents might have developed further if she had lived a longer life. As the body of her work makes evident, her unique gifts blended together brilliantly.
© 2009 Leah Strigler

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