Toby Olson’s Tampico
Joe Ashby Porter

For aficionados—addicts?—of its author’s fiction, Tampico (U. Texas, 2008), offers vintage Toby Olson, with many new wrinkles.  As with other Olson (and with work by a handful of other writers) this is ultrafiction, imperturbable as a dream and taking no shelter in generic expectations even when (as here) it juggles genres high and low, from joke to plot arabesques worthy of Cervantes.   The copiousness of Olson’s trademark congeries—

People were staggering in the sand.  Half-dressed skeletons struggled against objects in the surf all along the beach. I saw a wooden chair, a green painted table with a pig sitting on it, a floating harness, a rat on a stick.  And there were dead fish in the water, kelp, and sea lettuce ripped from its mooring, marzipan bones, dozens of wooden hangers, some dragging dresses and costumes, papier-mâché figures, a lamb and a deer painted for the Day of the Dead and bobbing high on the undulating water, their distended rib cages swollen with the sea, the hat of the ship’s captain, a guitar, a devil’s head. . . .

—extends to the plot as a whole, where infixed stories show what it’s like to be trapped in a burning house, or to take a skeleton home for dinner.  With Olson touchstones including fogbanks, tunnelling, horses and dogs, shorelines (here the Gulf coast of Mexico and Cape Cod), generational and historical sweep, and with story threads that cohere in the most unlikely ways, the work could hardly be more disarming.  Of course here as before some readers may prove incapable of laying down arms.  When a reviewer of another Olson novel, having summarized its flaring plot, confesses that he doesn’t know exactly what to make of all this, one wants to say thank your lucky stars.  But never mind, and Tampico also rewards with a trove of new additions to the Olson repertoire.  For instance, many narratives begun in the novel’s own voice are taken up and continued by one of its characters, the hand-off signaled by a mere set of opening quotation marks.  Olson may have used the device before, but I don’t recall ever being so exhilarated by it.  Furthermore, once singled out, it poses intriguing questions, as for instance why the narration should change hands just when it does.  And so across the board with Olson’s sustained and sustaining gratifications.

In face of this embarrassment of riches, let me here respond only to a few nuances of Olson’s own responses, to text, music, and graphic art.  The novel concludes describing a photograph “fashioned in homage to the great Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada,” whose etched engraving of partying calaveras, skeletons, illustrates the cover and whose nickname the spaniel Don Lupe bears.  Here, and with the novel’s takes on the Day of the Dead, and with its unblinking recognition of bodily decrepitude and mortality—matters increasingly to the fore in recent Olson—we may glimpse a peculiarly Mexican acceptance “beyond longing or nostalgia.” 

The cover also features the novel’s totemic yellow chihuahua in a pictograph that also graces the spine and the text passim as a dingbat, and whose uncanny incarnations within the fiction run from Rata in 1923 in the opening pages to her present-day embodiment seeming to pull a wheelchair as if “dragging a weight as heavy as all Mexico behind her, though really quite easily, given her strength and resolve,” and finally in the Cape Cod group photo.

Still before the novel opens, the dancing calavera  reappears in the epigraph 

‘Tain’t no sin to take off your skin

And dance around in your bones.

—Song lyric by Edgar Leslie, 1929

The quotation reprises Olson’s ongoing engagement (in poetry as well as fiction) with popular music, prepares for the strategic upwelling of standards late in Tampico, and draws William Burroughs’s cover of the song into the tonal register.  More distant pop music orbits include the early June Christy “Tampico,” the legendary Tampico singer Rodrigo González with his Posadaesque commitment to the urban poor, and Pierre Mac Orlan’s lament of a Tampico demimondaine “Chanson de Margaret” covered by Germaine Montéro, Monique Morelli, Barbara, and Juliette Greco, all memorably.  About the Leslie epigraph, though, one may wonder to what extent he, or Burroughs, or even Olson may have registered how perfectly strange is the second line’s preposition. 

Between cover and epigraph stands Olson’s handsome dedication to his friends Peter and Roberta Markman (she deceased), specialists in Mesoamerican myth whose work informs Tampico.  Facing this instance of Olson’s career-long testimonial to the value of friendship, the sentence heading a miscellany of front matter begins 

The author wishes to credit Joseph Hergesheimer’s novel

Tampico, published in 1926, from which a few words and images

have been lifted for this version. . . .

At first glance the words may only subliminally raise the question, Hergesheimer, who he?

Largely forgotten now, Hergesheimer (1880-1954) achieved substantial acclaim in the second and third decades of the last century with his novels and short stories, his Tampico a workmanlike escapist good read, romance and adventure tricked out with touches of south-of-the-border kitsch—“I am told that if holy water falls on her it boils”—and vaporous philosophizing.  So what’s up with Olson’s innocent-seeming note? 

The big question, I suppose, is how and why Olson should have been drawn to respond to the Hergesheimer.  Philadelphia, home to both writers (Olson living also on Cape Cod), may be part of the answer, Olson here engaging the city’s artistic heritage rather as in The Blond Box (2003).  And surely not coincidentally, portions of Olson’s Tampico transpire in Philadelphia.  The poker-faced notice that “a few words and images” (including the boiling holy water as well as character names, and the calentura—malaria—and of course the setting) “have been lifted” from Hergesheimer entertains with its combined frankness—the superior artist steals—and the responsibility-eliding passive.  One may also hear the fleeting suggestion of a more literal meaning in the colloquial “lifted,” Olson’s sphere being higher (as well as deeper) so that in a sense he raises not merely particular items from oblivion but also along with them Hergesheimer’s entire novel.  This vision of heavy lifting may sound as fanciful as the chihuahua’s towing all Mexico, and yet it seems implicit in the most curious phrase in Olson’s head-note, “this version.”  Trying to understand the later Tampico as a rendition or reincarnation of the former gives me such vertigo that I must simply cede the point and mull over the covey of tantalizing questions it flushes.  Is the earlier work then a version of the later?  As for novels lacking identically-titled successors (or predecessors), may they too nonetheless be called versions?