I won’t be using my usual approach to deal with Humboldt’s story because I’d rather focus on the themes with 100% of my attention, rather than trying to haphazardly flitter between things like characters, setting, plot and mood/atmosphere. For this reason I’m going to pretty much carve straight ahead and dig into the themes and underlying motifs of this story. If you haven’t read The Gym Teacher I recommend you do because otherwise you’re just faffing about like a damned fool.
Anyways, here we go!
Immaturity – This is a big part of the story. We’re introduced to Danny in gym class. Here he is outpaced by older boys and berated by an adult man. The words that stick out to me here are words like chaffed, coarse, fire and lacquer. At the basest level these descriptors are all centred around being rugged and tough, but they also knit together to create a superbly accurate description of a boy struggling to push his body on in the face of exhaustion. The passage in full is as follows;
Danny struggled around the track, his sneakers beating against the hot asphalt. His thighs burned, chaffed from the coarse texture of the gym shorts that were too big for him and always threatening to fall down. Sweat stung his eyes and lacquered his nose so that his glasses slid down his face. The air felt like fire in his lungs as he panted and fought for breath
This gives us our first hint about what Danny is struggling with and it ever so slightly points us towards matters of intimacy and sexuality. Yes, yes, yes, I could argue about Freudian this and that with regards to a bunch of sweaty boys labouring under the supervision of an authority (look to prisons and boarding schools to see why this could be interpreted as possibly homoerotic) but really I’m more interested in how words like chaffed, beating, hot, thighs, coarse, sweat, panted and fought, ever so slightly point us in the direction of adolescent sexuality without stating it outright.
It’s subtle foreshadowing to a major facet of this story; Danny has been catapulted into an academic year where is he physiologically mismatched with his peers. Similarly, his intellectual growth is also mismatched. I think the most important line in this section, at least for me, is “gym shorts that were too big for him”. It immediately paints the right image; this boy is too young to be dealing with some of these issues. And it’s not the only time we see this sort of imagery employed to tell us something similar. We later see the imagery of Danny in clothes that are too big for him at a funeral where he struggles to come to terms with the reality of his grandmother’s death.
Danny is out of his depth, he’s certainly struggling to cope with the recent changes in his life and himself. We even see the typical characteristic response to adolescent frustration in one of his little existentialist outbursts (“Or has it actually never crossed your little pea-sized brain that one day you will be dead?”). But there are other, more characterised responses used by Danny that are specific to him. In particular, the pursuit of knowledge.
We all know this story focuses on sex; the section I highlighted earlier brings underlying themes of adolescent sexuality and immaturity to the forefront. But it’s important to note that when Danny is faced with violence, death and sex he responds with a desire to know more about both himself and his urges. We follow him on this journey, and it’s something like a sliding spectrum, wherein it starts with books, fantasies and a dream before ending with a webcam show of a werewolf sodomising a corpse.
This brings me onto the next big theme; reality vs fantasy. We see this subtly put out there a few times, but I think the first time is when Danny chides someone for reading Stephen King’s IT. Exact passage is as follows:
What a fool', he thought: reading about an alien clown named Pennywise. That was scary? What Danny was reading was real.
Here are some other related lines:
…he wondered what the hell he had been thinking, what he had thought he would see.
This can’t be real,' Danny thought to himself. It can’t be real. This has to be some kind of dream. Some kind of nightmare.
Seeing this was much different than reading about it and he felt the urge to vomit.
And so on, I’m sure you’ll be able to pick out some of your own examples. But the gist of it is clear. We start out with Danny being immature and he pursues further knowledge, but part of his downfall is the disconnect between what he fantasises about, and what he legitimately experiences. He passes judgements he’s not informed enough to make; he thinks IT and Pennywise are beneath him for they’re not ‘real’, but he doesn’t even know anything about what is and isn’t real. And as if to highlight the glaring nature of this ignorance Humboldt has a real-life werewolf become part of Danny’s narrative. I think the fundamental cause of this disconnect is that Danny is not prepared to face up to adult concepts such as death, sex and violence. Or at the very least the narrative is acknowledging that facing up to these issues is fundamentally traumatic even if it’s not inherently aberrant or immature.
Really, though, up to this point I’ve just identified some recurring motifs and ideas. You don’t need to be a genius to pick out the immaturity and reality/fantasy as underlying themes, and I’m more or less tracing out the general outline of Danny’s journey. But I’ve established these ideas because I think they under, or are in service to, the far bigger theme of metamorphosis and transformation. Fantasy transforms into reality. Life into death, child into adult, man into wolf, so and so forth. There’s a lot of philosophy underlying transformation – it touches on death and entropy but at the core of it all is the idea that nothing stays the same unless it’s dead, and even then, that’s not really true.
Let’s start with some support for my argument that transformation is a central part of this story’s DNA.
The first time he had read Metamorphosis he had known exactly what Kafka was talking about
Staring down at the lifeless corpse of this woman who had meant so much to him changed him in some undefinable way he couldn’t explain. It was his grandmother whom he had loved and adored, yet it was not her at all, just a shell.
…as his hot, wet seed grew cold and stiff against his belly [Hot -> Cold]
Everything that had once been rosy and pink on her was now a sallow blue:
His little sister told him, “You look different. You’re not the same.”
But anyway (there are loads of other examples where transformation is slipped into the story), I’m fascinated by this theme of transformation. For much of the story I thought Danny was going to go haywire; I thought it was forewarned by his fascination with violence, his father’s abusive tendencies (while this is on the table, remember that violent drunks are often described as ‘transforming’ into assholes because of their addiction), and the obvious fact that Danny matches the school-shooter archetype to a ‘T’. Also the only other adult males we see are framed as violent and dangerous; if Danny is maturing from a boy into a man he’s only got two notable role models to follow; his father and Kirby. I thought this was the transformation that was so heavily foreshadowed, but it’s interesting to see that Danny’s maturity is not manifested in sexual aggression or perversion. He does transform, just as he matures and faces reality. But it’s by embracing love, not violence.
Other aspects of the story that really dig into the concept of transformation? Well it’s a fucking werewolf story. I mean… c’mon. I shouldn’t have to labour too hard to establish this. Let’s just move on.
It’s worth noting that so far I’ve completely left out the theme of gender, even though it’s central to the story. Danny dismisses his father’s violent tendencies and Kirby’s flat-out perversions in favour of being a responsible older brother. That is his moment of maturity, that is his transformation and it’s what brings him into reality. He sees Gail as a supporting and caring woman, he sees his mother in a new light, and realises life ain’t so bad after all. Other aspects of this theme I think are important are as follows;
The corpse is perfectly feminine and present in a natural environment. She is surrounded by trees and birds and beautiful scenery. The mother and lover both embrace hippy spiritualism with direct references to naturalism and Gaia herself. There’s a strong connection between femininity and nature. Men aren’t necessarily presented as artificial (Kirby is described with imagery like mountains, boulders and tree trunks) but there’s certainly some language that explores gender anyway.
So for one, the corpse is damaged. What by? Kirby. She’s literally—and I quote—perfect in every way, besides her torn-out throat and missing arm. She’s been violated, spoilt, defaced – whatever word you might choose the imagery isn’t that hard to pick out. I mean, for crying out loud, she starts out pink and as times goes on and she decays she becomes blue. Those are the archetypical colours for women and men respectively. Danny’s mother undergoes a different transformation; she goes from redneck mom to a herbalist clad in floral patterns and amethyst anklets (hey, did you know amethyst stones are often associated with sobriety? What was Danny’s mother running away from again….?). It’s not hard to draw conclusions about this sort of transformation and how the themes of metamorphosis and gender work to complement one another.
I think the best demonstration of this relationship between is one where the themes are laid out a little more earnestly in Danny’s own writing. As he puts it,
The metamorphosis of the body through rape and mutilation represents Sade’s desire for catharsis and transformation; however, his fixation on anal rape represents the futility of his desire for change in that no seed will take in the anal cavity, unlike the vagina that represents the possibility of new life.
Danny wants catharsis; he’s facing urges and a titanic sexual desire (as we all do at such an age) that cannot be readily dealt with. But, a fixation on violence and rape limits the transformation and maturation. It leads him down the wrong paths where his curiosity brings him face to face with legitimate threats. It’s only by embracing love and his own familial unit that Danny can actually address the underlying problem. In contrast to Danny we have Kirby who never demonstrates this capacity. Kirby, much like Sade, is stuck trying to effect a transformation that is meaningless and which produces no real change (it’s worth pointing out that Kirby and the werewolf aren’t, really, that different or that big a deal. What do we see of this werewolf? Is he fought with silver bullets? Does he come out only on full moons? We see none of the lycanthropic tropes that typically define this type of fiction. The transformation between The Gym Teacher and The Werewolf is violent, but really, meaningless because both demonstrate the capacity for violence and rape).
I could eek out some greater meaning here about how by embracing a natural balance between male and female desires there’s the possibility for new life, transformation and catharsis (as opposed to fixating on dominance which, much like fucking a corpse, isn’t going to produce much). But I think it’s more important to highlight that these themes are laid out very much for us to explore in our own way; I don’t believe there’s an objective truth or morale to this story. I think the whole thing stems from the need to explore and understand ourselves and others at a time in life where we are on the cusp of transformation and I think it’s all summed up quite beautifully in the following line:
It appeared there was a vantage point up there where he could ascertain his place in the forest, maybe even see the cluster of houses that made up his neighborhood.
There’s more to this story than just the themes I’ve hammered out here. There’s some effortless displays of clever language, acting as a great guide for people who want to dig into the way writers create imagery and atmosphere. The story works hard to foreshadow and establish itself in powerful ways. The themes are there if you dig for them, but the story isn’t painfully obtuse. The plot has a structure of middle, beginning and end, which works very well and helps keep the pacing up, and in turn it means you can just sit back and enjoy this without further analysis. It’s a pretty good package deal, but you’d be missing out on a lot if you didn’t think about it. Like I said, it’s use of language is exceptional and shouldn’t be dismissed. Just look at this passage here,
…he pushed his glasses up his nose, slammed his book shut with a little too much flourish, got up, and skulked off to a corner seat where he could read in quiet
Pushed, slammed, shut, flourish, got up, skulked; these words are great but it’s real strength is in how it uses structure and not just content to create a feeling. There’s flow, but at times it’s stunted; it feels like it’s trying to emphasise the harshness of the action (e.g. slammed, shut, etc.) but it slips occasionally into softer language (e.g. flourish, skulked, quiet) so it comes off as an insincere display of anger. The structure perfectly mimics the action of this passage where Danny puts on a social display of arrogance and frustration, but it can also be argued to support the themes of ‘affected masculinity’ and the corresponding immaturity such behaviour shows.
And this is just one example out of a story that’s 10,000 words long. I’d love to see what others have to say, and what particular parts of this story stood out. In particular, I left the epilogue wholly untouched. I’d be interested in knowing what you guys thought about this little section?
Oh, also, Humboldt, if/when you read this - I'm curious, have you read Portnoy's Complaint? There were some aspects of this story that really reminded me of Philip Roth's strange little odyssey into the adolescent mindset. If you haven't I really recommend it, I think you'd enjoy it.