How Wally Lost His Thumb and the Boy Scouts Became Cannibals by Al Ortolani
reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
“How Wally Lost His Thumb and the Boy Scouts Became Cannibals”
Spartan Press, 2019
$12.00, 132 pages
As the title of Al Ortolani’s collection suggests, this book is a hoot, reminiscent of Jean Shepard’s stories, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash and A Fistful of Fig Newtons among them, likewise tales of growing up in the Midwest. Except where Shepard’s characters are forever mired in childhood, Ortolani tells a sort of “coming of age” story as we watch Wally and his friends grow up – or grow older, anyway. For Wally is sort of a perpetual sadsack, even though he is a genuine seeker of truth.
The collection is divided into four sections, and through them we watch Wally go from childhood to college to a post-Vietnam version of adulthood. The first section is called “Crayon Sucker,” and in the first poem, by the same name, we see Wally (though not named) as a class clown. The poem ends:
His parents learned to accept Cs
from their above average,
crayon sucking child.
Sometimes the Wally poems are told in the first person by Wally himself, sometimes by an unnamed contemporary. A variety of friends come and go. There’s Charlie Miller and Gordon, the Cowboys and Boy Scouts. They go to the carnival, they get into trouble, get into fights; they drive cars; they learn about girls. In “Boys Dig Through Neighbor’s Trash Only to Become Beset by Great Mystery” they learn about menstruation. In “Mama DeBeauty Explains a Necessary But Uncomfortable Aspect of Dude Ranching” Wally and the unnamed narrator of the poem spy on a couple of comely girls only to be caught by their mother.
I pointed to Wally
and said in shaken desperation,
My friend’s in love
with your daughter.
Mama DeBeauty takes the boys aside and allusively describes the consequences.
After a middle section, “Crow,” describes similar coming-of-age drama of the character Johnny Crow, we are back with Wally, now a college student, in the section entitled “Oscar the Lab Skeleton,” which refers to a prank Wally pulls one day with a science-class human skeleton. In this section, Wally discovers drugs and also becomes curious about, well, “the meaning of life,” and so his spiritual journey commences. Gordon and Charlie are back, and Anna and Bambi Alvarez are part of the gang, too.
Finally, in “Dancing at the American Legion,” the final section, Wally deals with loss. He’s lost an arm in Vietnam, lost his friends, his home, his family, homeless and hapless but still a seeker. (“Wally Practices Pranayama at the Self-Serve,” “Wally Sings Amazing Grace in an Arkansas Cave.”)
In the last poem in the collection, “Wally Smokes a Cigar with Sam Clemens,” that nameless speaker tells us, “The last anybody heard, Wally traveled to northern / Minnesota, sold his Ford, and purchased a rundown / house boat.” He’s about to set off down the Mississippi to New Orleans. How Wally Lost His Thumb and the Boy Scouts Became Cannibals is by turns humorous, tragic, insightful and sad. It’s a good, lyrical adventure in the heartland.
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is) –http://poetscoop.org/manuscrip/Time%20Is%20on%20My%20Side%20FREE.pdf