The actual title of this Hans Augustus Rey classic is Curious George Takes A Job. But George does get high as well as get a job during the course of his improbable and entertaining narrative. Whenever Henry and I get to the part where George uncaps the enormous bottle of ether and passes out after taking generous whiffs of the early anaesthetic, I always giggle. “George is getting high,” I think nostalgically.
Dr. Wilbur Larch, arguably John Irving’s most admirable and heartbreaking characters, was an ether addict. I wonder if he saw rings and stars like George before he would pass out at the end of a long day of performing abortions in a remote corner of Maine. Perhaps, he’d read the children’s book himself. Probably not. The book was published in 1947. Dr. Larch’s story is told during the last two years of WWII. Also Dr. Larch isn’t real.
Perhaps this, the timing of its first release, is why such a narrative high point was allowed in a children’s book. Published just after WWII, (I’ll call him) Gus and his publishers maybe felt there are worse things than a curious monkey getting a little high. On medical ether. In the safety of a hospital. Worse things than a hospital that leaves a bottle of ether around for a curious monkey to get high on. Worse things than a hospital that treats people and a monkey in the same place and leaves the monkey unsupervised. Worse things than relinquishing custody of said monkey to some man in a yellow hat and a matching outfit(!) who says he’s going to take the monkey to make a movie with him(!). Worse things than smoking cigars indoors and passing second hand smoke onto our beloved George. There are worse things. Gus was keeping it real.
For instance, Gus maybe knew that only a monkey would continue to be happily curious after being kidnapped from his home in Africa and told that he’ll like the zoo in the big city. Maybe he knew that white men would lord forgiveness and good graces over a monkey’s head at the price of risking his life, the monkey’s, to rocket into space rather than step into the rocket themselves. Maybe he knew that monkeys were thrown into prison for misdemeanors like accidentally calling 911.
What’s most real and telling about the book (and all of the George books) is Gus never strings a moral thread or insinuates a narrative arc through George’s adventures. One thing just happens after another. There’s no attempt to manufacture greater meaning, a lesson. Even when George is remorseful, it never subdues, let alone kills, his curiosity. Life is fun sometimes and not fun other times; up and down and then occasionally this oscillation is punctuated by a party. And then he starts all over again. George doesn’t change. I imagine Gus’s philosophy to go something like this: “Shit happens. Clean it up and get on with it, because there’s fun to be had.”
* * *
It was summer of 1994. My grade 11 English teacher gave me a copy of Cider House Rules just before school let out. Mr. Dan Milkovich (not to be confused with Malkovich, as in John Malkovich, who is creepy and famous) was a first year high school teacher and he liked me, thought I was a good student, and wanted to nurture my literary potential. I didn’t believe for a second I had one because I was going to be premed and I didn’t respect his opinion–he was too eager to befriend his students and gave out A’s like a man afraid of a bunch of sixteen year olds. Perhaps he’d heard the story of how my class had brought our grade 10 English teacher to tears when she tried to get sanctimonious on us about our teasing one of our classmates. We were a bunch of overachieving, self-important, ambitious little shits. And no blond, blue-eyed, twenty-something year old English teacher (balk!) was going to scold us for being mean.
I read it out of sheer boredom one day in the middle of July. I loved it. It was the first time I thought, “I want to write something like this.” Not necessarily a book with a bunch of white characters in white spaces concerned with white problems. But something that made me love the characters, write something that brought to beautiful relief the relationship between a parent and child. Wilbur Larch and Homer’s relationship was something I’d never seen in literature before. It was full of compassion, kindness, love, and getting high. I amazed me that my beloved Dr. Larch whom I came to respect and love was also a drug addict. A person could be deeply flawed and undeniably good. I didn’t know that until this book. And so I experienced what all good literature happens to do: turn a self-absorbed teenager into a human being (it would take many more volumes to educate me to be a fairly consistently empathetic human being.)
Cider House Rules was probably what led me to experiment with pot, mushrooms, and cocaine without beating up my soul about it. What made me stop abusing them was 1)drugs are expensive, and 2)my personality started to change from being decent enough to raging jackass. Oh and 3)there were times when I thought I might accidentally kill myself, not unlike Wilbur, poor man. At least he had an excuse; he performed abortions on sad, frightened young women all day. What was my excuse?
I wonder what I will say if my kids ever clue in to what’s happening in this scene or at least get an inkling of the taboo nature of it in a children’s book.
“What’s he doing, mommy?”
“George is sniffing ether.”
“I want medicine.”
Don’t we all. “Not this medicine. You can have some chewy vitamins though.”
“Mommy, is he getting high?”
“George get high?”
[Pause] “Yeah, monkey.”
“Mommy, you get high?”
Clearly, I have no idea how I’m going to deal with the Drug Talk.
* * *
Gus died in 1977, the year I was born, in Cambridge Massachusetts, which is where I live. He and his wife, Margaret, fled Europe from the Nazis. He was an immigrant to the US. I am an immigrant to Canada and now a permanent resident in the US. He was German. I’m Korean. He was a white dude. I’m an Asian woman. So, okay, we don’t have a lot in common. But as it happens with all writing I like, I can’t help but like the writer. If he/she could create this, then he/she must be at least as cool as the book.
There is, for balance sake, not a single significant character in his books who isn’t white. So the limits of his coolness are on pictorial display.
But the title character isn’t a white kid. Yes, sometimes animal characters can be racially oriented–and by racially I mean white, as if children’s books weren’t glutted with white kids and white boys especially–but George isn’t white and he could be anybody including my half Korean kids.
Also, George never gets beat. In the end, he’s all right, if not great. He never holds a grudge against those who exploit and perpetuate unjust treatment against him. Life is too short to brood on injustices like being kidnapped or persecuted for being Jewish and having to flee your country.
Speaking of fleeing, the most irresistible aspect of George’s stories for me are his flights. Whether by way of balloons, or a kite, or go-cart, or rocket ship, or drugs, he always risks life and limb (literally in this particular volume) to defy gravity. What kid hasn’t wished her balloon could take her up into the sky.
And if you think about it, there is no impulse that lends as much meaning to life as the desire to fly–to take off, to boldly go where no man has gone before, to defy the forces of nature (and man’s lesser nature) and look death right in the face.