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Defector Reads A Book

We’re Standing Right Here With You, Ready To Discuss ‘Fences’

Cover image: Penguin Random House

Welcome back to Defector Reads A Book! Our March DRAB selection was August Wilson’s Fences, which the Defector book sickos have read and discussed. We’ll be down in the comments to chat with you as soon as you’re done reading

Maitreyi Anantharaman: Two questions to start. First, how did we end up coincidentally scheduling this discussion for Opening Day? And second, is there a sport more rich with metaphors than baseball? 

Giri Nathan: I was actually going through and trying to pick out all the individual baseball metaphors. Death as a fastball on the outside corner. Cheating as stealing second base after spending 18 years on first. And metaphor aside, there’s some great baseball-as-baseball stuff in here, including mild Guy-Remembering. I’m no historian but I did not Remember George Selkirk. 

MA: I had a good chuckle at Troy Maxson’s “Hank Aaron ain’t nobody.” Of course, there’s some quiet tragedy to it, but it’s such a Troy line.

Kelsey McKinney: Troy is also the one who says, “Hell, I know some teams Jackie Robinson couldn’t even make … Jackie Robinson wasn’t nobody.” Just a full cockiness that is believable to me, but not an insane statement? 

GN: It seems like Troy is at his most Troy when they are talking about baseball, whether literally or not. Just a big swaggering charismatic jock telling stories full of self-delusion and -aggrandizement. He takes up all the space and is so entertaining to listen to even if you have to pinch yourself to remind yourself that it’s heavily lies.

KM: Yes! I loved the subtle reveal around Cory’s football problem. Where Troy tells him like he isn’t allowed to play because they will discriminate against him and compares it to his own experience. But then later it’s revealed that actually the coach told Cory he wasn’t allowed to play anymore. It’s evident from the very first page with the watermelon boast that this guy is just a dynamic as hell character. 

MA: I’d read Fences before and watched the film, but I think on this read, Troy catapulted up my list of best literary characters. What a character! He felt so real and full to me. I was fascinated by his bitterness, his insecurity, his desperation. I really haven’t been able to stop thinking about him since I finished reading.

GN: I think what I like most about him is how he muddles the truth about his life and the stories he tells himself to rationalize his choices. For example: It is true that he faced extreme hardship and racism first just trying to find a place just to exist in America, and later trying to find a place to play ball in the majors. And he didn’t make it. But then Rose points out that he was over 40 by that point, anyway, so maybe he shouldn’t get to cite that experience as a reason to hold back Cory’s aspirations as a young man in a slightly more hospitable world. He’s not seeing his own history clearly, and he’s imposing that picture on the future. It’s that blend of fact and myth that makes all his rants feel so human and sad.

KM: So much of what August Wilson does with Rose’s character is fascinating to me because he gives her lines that specifically tell us how Troy is and how difficult of a person he is to deal with because of that blending of fact and self-mythology. Like when she tells him about Cory’s football recruitment, she starts off trying to be reasonable. She says things have changed since the war, and then brings up Jackie Robinson, and then by the middle of the conversation she’s saying, “Every time Troy tell that story he find different ways to tell it. Different things to make up about it.” It’s just obvious how exhausting this must be for her, how relentless these stories must be. 

MA: Rose has that line at the end about how when Troy “walked through the house he was so big he filled it up.” I think there’s some of that going on in the play itself; the other characters are all there to complicate him, or complicate our image of him. I’m still stuck a little on Rose, who I think gets some beautiful and tender moments in this play, but never quite felt as alive or textured a character to me as Troy did. 

GN: I agree with that: The rest of the characters, while compelling, can feel like moving, sentient parts of the set, surrounding Troy’s monologue. Bono is the straight man who Troy gets to bounce his theories and tales off of. Lyons is aspiring to a creative-class “fast life” that is opposed to Troy’s idea of honest working class life. Cory is a kid who Troy pegs as doomed to replicate the same disappointments as his father.

KM: Maitreyi, I was thinking about this a lot last night because I don’t know very much about plays in general so a lot of their structure is revealing to me. What’s interesting about this story to me is that by nature of it being a play and there being characters on a stage speaking, it feels like every character is getting to talk and that they are removed from an authorial voice, but that’s so obviously not true here. Like Fences is almost a very tight third-person narration on Troy. He is the center. He is the one who matters. He is the only one standing in the spotlight. In a way it is as if all the other characters are viewed through him. Maybe this is a fairly elementary observation, but I had never really thought about the perspective of a written play and how that influences its construction. 

MA: Right! You bring up what is possibly a counterpoint, or is at least an important point, to keep in mind when evaluating the characters: This was not necessarily meant to be read the way I read it, and a “there are no small parts, only small actors” lens might be helpful. I remember there being that mini-controversy when the 2016 film came out and Viola Davis had been entered in the supporting category for her performance as Rose in awards season, which seemed wrong given the force of her character in the movie. So much of what you get out of a play is what the actors are giving you. And still, all that said, I think someone playing Rose has to do a little more work than someone playing Troy.

GN: A small counter-counterpoint: Wilson loved the play on the page. Here’s something I was surprised to find in his Paris Review interview: “I don’t write for a production. I write for the page, just as I would with a poem. A play exists on the page even if no one ever reads it aloud. I don’t mean to underestimate a good production with actors embodying the characters, but depending on the readers’ imagination they may get more by reading the play than by seeing a weak production.”

MA: Ah, OK, then I’ve been owned by August Wilson. 

KM: Giri, I love this point and this quote. And while I agree that you can get more reading than seeing a weak production, I would trade so much to have been able to see this live instead. It’s so hard to read a play. That’s a dumb thing to say, but I really love to see a play come alive. Like the dialogue is incredible, of course, but there’s so little description and so little external world building in a piece of writing that is just dialogue. The fullness of the play comes from the people who act it. 

GN: Yeah, and while I definitely think Wilson may have been a little intentionally provocative up there—what’s the point of doing one of those interviews if not to drop some spicy epigrams?—he also talks about how he initially intended to become a poet, jotting things down on napkins. And reading the play I was often struck by the poetry in the parentheticals and action. Especially the ones about Uncle Gabe. I found his interstitial bits richer than other plays I’ve read. And that’s the stuff that, weirdly, would be invisible in a real-life production, or maybe just incorporated successfully or unsuccessfully. It was funny to hear him lightly roast a few directorial choices he’d seen over the ages.

MA: I absolutely agree. I jotted a bunch of the parentheticals and descriptions down for their poetry. One felt like one of our beloved Woolf-Fitzgerald burns. It’s our introduction to Lyons: “Though he fancies himself a musician, he is more caught up in the rituals and ‘idea’ of being a musician than in the actual practice of the music.” Even some of the mise en scène bits at the beginning were lovely, like “an old-fashioned icebox stands silent guard.” 

KM: I noticed what you’re both talking about most with the directions for Gabriel, which I definitely would not have noticed on the stage.  “Gabriel comes to the door”; “Gabriel enters from the house with a sandwich.” Even though these are basic instructions, they always felt to me in context like an extension of Wilson’s earlier statement that he “believes with every fiber of his being that he is the Archangel Gabriel.” It feels like other characters are often exiting scenes or leaving conversations but Gabriel only ever seems to be appearing, arriving, entering. I don’t have great evidence for this, but it was a feeling I got. 

GN: Yeah, Gabe is definitely drifting in and out of the action with the least notice, and everytime he does come it has a certain weight. Partially this is because of the uneasy role he plays in Troy’s life—his trauma paid for Troy’s house, and later Troy’s collecting half of his checks—and partially because it seems like the house is the only safe place he can be, unbothered by the cops or kids on the street or other people who don’t have his interests at heart. The last page where he’s blowing on the trumpet and dancing is one of the most beautifully written passages of the book, and, despite how physical it is, one of the instances I was happy to be seeing it on page because of Wilson’s craft.

KM: “There is a weight of impossible description that falls away and leaves him bare and exposed to a frightful realization. It is a trauma that a sane and normal mind would be unable to withstand. He begins to dance.” Like truly what the fuck. What a paragraph!!!

MA: It’s funny to compare the muted, quietly devastating poetry of the parentheticals with the really loudly devastating monologues the characters get. Troy has his, of course, but Rose’s, when she learns about Troy’s affair, is a real showstopper. The whole time, she’s played the dutiful, silently suffering wife, and now we get a look at her desire and vulnerability: “Don’t you think it ever crossed my mind to want to know other men? That I wanted to lay up somewhere and forget about my responsibilities? That I wanted someone to make me laugh so I could feel good?”  

GN: She has some of my favorite lines here, about burying her “wants and needs” in Troy, and knowing well before 18 years were up that “the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn’t ever going to bloom.” Of course she was disappointed—she still endured. Once again, she’s complicating a reason Troy sets out for his behavior, a way he sees himself as unique.

KM: Not to quote every line from this monologue in this blog but when Rose says, “Don’t you think I ever wanted other things? Don’t you think I have dreams and hopes? What about my life? What about me. Don’t think it ever crossed my mind to want to know other men?” The “What about me.” with the period just absolutely devastated me. That in the middle of all of these questions that she is posing to him there is this statement meant to be a question but for which she knows there is no answer: “What about me.” It’s such a small syntax choice, but it’s gutting. She knows that he’s never thought about that question, that it holds nothing for him, that through his actions he has already told her that he won’t wonder for a second about her. 

MA: Honestly, I think we should just paste the entire damn monologue in here!

(GIRI pastes the monologue.)

I been standing with you! I been right here with you, Troy. I got a life too. I gave eighteen years of my life to stand in the same spot with you. Don’t you think I ever wanted other things? Don’t you think I had dreams and hopes? What about my life? What about me. Don’t you think it ever crossed my mind to want to know other men? That I wanted to lay up somewhere and forget about my responsibilities? That I wanted someone to make me laugh so I could feel good? You not the only one who’s got wants and needs. But I held on to you, Troy. I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams . . . and I buried them inside you. I planted a seed and watched and prayed over it. I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn’t take me no eighteen years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn’t never gonna bloom. 

But I held on to you, Troy. I held you tighter. You was my husband. I owed you everything I had. Every part of me I could find to give you. And upstairs in that room . . . with the darkness falling in on me … I gave everything I had to try and erase the doubt that you wasn’t the finest man in the world. And wherever you was going … I wanted to be there with you. Cause you was my husband. Cause that’s the only way I was gonna survive as your wife. You always talking about what you give . . . and what you don’t have to give. But you take too. You take . . . and don’t even know nobody’s giving!

MA: The absolute madman! He actually pasted it in here!

KM: Giri! You’re wild! Thank you. 

GN: My other favorite saddest part here, a little later on, is when Rose says that Raynell will have a mother but Troy will not have a wife.

MA: Yes! “But you a womanless man.”

GN: For all the tragedy in every interpersonal relationship in Troy’s life, he does pull off something extremely unlikely at work: He becomes the first black truck driver. He’s done hauling the garbage at the back of the truck. What do we make of his success here?

MA: Right, and it’s this interesting little reversal of what happened with his baseball career. He gets a job he isn’t qualified for—he doesn’t have a driver’s license—when before, it was the other way around. So much of this play is about how Troy, as a black man, lives at the mercy of various institutions. He spent time in prison, he was excluded from the major leagues, his house was paid for by a military check—a check incommensurate with the injury to Gabriel—and as a result, he has this really tortured relationship with them. He’s rightfully bothered by how impenetrable they are, how little logic there is to them. He and Rose have that conversation about the lottery, and it’s a great window into his resentment of a system that comes down to timing and luck (which is all American systems!)

KM: It was kind of sadly funny to me that Troy doesn’t like the job he wanted so badly. He tells Bono he’s upset that he’s hauling white people’s garbage and also that he’s lonely up there in the front of the truck. Everything in Troy’s life that he doesn’t have any agency over comes too late for him to enjoy it, and everything he does have agency over he kind of allows it to blow up in his face. His success never feels like success. Even as a reader, it’s kind of unsatisfying. 

GN: Self-undermining becomes such a theme of Troy’s story. And when Cory feels like he’s on the cusp of something that could change his life, Troy is determined to undermine that too. And Cory eventually realizes he has to (or rather, is forced to) break out of Troy’s sphere of influence—his fenced-in yard—to find his own way.

MA: Rose has that all-time parenting line at the end, when she’s talking to Cory: “Your daddy wanted you to be everything he wasn’t … and at the same time he tried to make you into everything he was.” 

KM: One Rose thing I have been thinking about is how she sings that song about fences which seems like where the title comes from, but the song is about Jesus building a fence around her. And this was kind of funny to me because I never really think of a fence as being around something as much as enclosing something, except for in one specific instance which is baseball where I very much think about a fence as being around the field. The fences then, I guess, are around the two things that Tony wants so desperately but cannot seem to keep: baseball and Rose, things he thought he had enclosed but lost. 

GN: It’s hard to forget that Troy spent so much time in that yard swinging his bat, at the ball of rags, and at the vague specter of death, and that he eventually dies swinging, too.

DRAB will be in the comments for the next couple of days to hear your thoughts and chat with you. If you missed out on this month’s book, don’t worry! April is a new month and we’ll announce our next pick tomorrow.