Milking the Moon: A Southerner’s Story of Life on This Planet
Milking the Moon: A Southerner’s Story of Life on This Planet is a great book, so great that it was nominated for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for biographies (it didn’t win). The trouble is that it isn’t the book it purports to be. It isn’t about Southernness, and it arguably isn’t even a biography. Fortunately, the attributes that rob it of those two key descriptors are the same ones that make it an exceptionally worthwhile read.
Milking the Moon is the life story of Eugene Walter, as told by him to Katherine Clark, in his home, over the course of a summer in 1991. Eugene had befriended Clark at a party four years earlier, shortly after he moved back to Mobile. Eugene was 70, living alone in a rambling house with a cluster of cats, and Ms. Clark was a 20-something writer with a degree from Harvard and one book already under her belt (another oral biography called Motherwit: An Alabama Midwife’s Story). Their inspired friendship girds the whole work: Clark clearly finds her muse in Eugene, who channels himself to us through Clark’s vitality and dedication. Eugene sketches his life for us from childhood with his grandparents in Mobile, Alabama, to his days as a cryptographer in Alaska and as a writer in New York. His story wanders through his twenties in Paris literary circles, as well as the two decades he spent in Rome writing and working in films. In the epilogue, we find Eugene making it back to Mobile.
A large part of what makes Eugene’s story so extraordinary is that throughout his life he associates with the most interesting people wherever he happens to be. By intuition and happenstance, Eugene Walter manages to be at the center of more than one cultural revolution, hobnobbing with a dense list of Somebodies while participating semi-peripherally. He’s a contributor to the first issue of the Paris Review, works as Fellini’s assistant, and plays character parts in Fellini’s films. Early in his life, he’s given three pubic hairs by Tallulah Bankhead and late in life he’s a close friend of Leontyne Price. So expansive is his list of dropped names that Clark includes a 22-page index of them in the back of the book: “Nabokov, Nicolas; Nin, Anais; North, Alex…” Eugene’s Forrest Gump-like knack for being in the middle of the most important happenings of each decade makes this a delightful read for any student of twentieth-century culture. But that isn’t why you should read it.
The real joy of this book lies in Eugene’s punctilious eye, ear, and nose for detail. With casual poeticism, he recalls early Mobile as a sensory smorgasbord. The colors of Carnival, the smell of salt on the air, and the rituals of napping and neighborly interaction are all remembered with childhood’s intensity and old age’s nostalgia. His description of fresh corn alone is worth the cover price:
If we were going to have corn on the cob for lunch, my grandfather would go out in the garden and my grandmother would put the water on to boil and watch the pot. When she saw bubbles forming on the bottom of the pot, she would go to the window and say, “Now.” My grandfather would grab those ears off the stalk and shuck ’em and pass ’em through the window, and she would throw ’em in. Then: everybody at the table. The country butter lady would have arrived on Monday with the country butter, and my grandmother would get the crock from the icebox, where we kept the blocks of ice, the white wine, and the country butter. Then everybody would have their fresh corn on the cob with fresh butter. It was a religious experience.
The trouble is that just when the reader is feeling cozily familiar with some Southern tradition, such as the one described above, Eugene labels it a European tradition merely being maintained in the South. Home-grown and home-cooked meals are ascribed to the French; the rite of the afternoon nap is originally Italian. “Life was rather European,” he muses. Combined with his tendency to talk about America in terms of the soulless, eight-to-five workaday world that he found in New York, Eugene gives the impression that, no matter how many times he invokes the name of Mobile, he is less a Southern creature than a continental one. That he makes for Paris in his early twenties reinforces this impression.
Similarly problematic is the classification of this book as a “biography.” It is an oral history, and should be distinguished from biography (the category in which it was up for the Book Critics Circle Award). Katherine Clark’s apparently laissez-faire style has here created a work which, though entertaining, neglects both the obligatory revelations, insight, and self-knowledge of autobiography, and the research, perspective, and scrutiny of traditional biography. This is understandable: A quick glance at her ebullient introduction reveals that this is really a work of tribute, and that, for her, How Great Eugene Is is an all-sufficient raison d’etre for the book. This conflict of interests (friend v. biographer) results in a suspiciously scrubbed-clean version of a life. It’s been suggested that this form of interview might echo and honor the Paris Review style of interviewing–that is, with a focus on character and art, not prurient prying–but for a work of this size and scope, the vast holes in Eugene’s narrative are unmistakable and disorienting.
An example of one such void is the conspicuous absence of Eugene’s love life. In spite of insisting more than once that men need to “get their rocks off” every eight to twenty-four hours, he scrupulously withholds any mention of his own romantic or sexual involvements (though he giddily divulges those of others). When it comes to his own life, he simply ignores the subject. Some may consider this a diplomatic choice, but there seems to be a certain dishonesty at work here. Eugene also fails to make any mention of race relations in Mobile, save fleeting references to the black nurse who raised him, a black cook at the five-and-dime, and “boboshillies… old Indian women from the backwoods” who dressed in white and sold medicinal roots and powders out of their aprons. And more strangely, Eugene painlessly discusses his passage from his parents’ hands (who, apparently, went on with their lives as though they had no child–his father in international business and his mother, after a stint at a mental institution, living a “very happy life in New Orleans with the bohemian set”)–to his grandparents’ (who died within three years of each other when Eugene was a pre-teen), to a family acquaintance, Mr. Gayfer (who also died “very unexpectedly” the summer of his senior year). This traumatic set of plot points receives so little attention from Eugene as to slip under the reality radar, but, as they are the facts of his childhood, the manner in which he barely tells them should be noted.
In these terms, the book fails to deliver the Whole Eugene. It makes the reader a participant in the happening and a diner at the table, but Eugene remains a performer, and the reader remains an audience. We don’t close the cover feeling like an intimate of the author’s, but rather, a guest at an excellent party whose host is so good at his role that he never departs from it. Eugene mentions in the epilogue that he has “several fireplaces full of regrets,” but we never hear what they are. If he ever cried, had a hangover or a crush, we, the readers of his biography, will never know about it.
What ultimately makes the book worth reading is that Eugene is a great storyteller and a great influence. He’s an imperfect historian and it’s an imperfect biography, but what happens to the reader when it’s all over is something that ought to happen to everyone. Because Eugene credits his open attitude, rather than any inborn ability or intelligence, for his extraordinary life, he makes such a life seem accessible to the reader, and able to be translated into his or her reality. He explains his going from New York to Paris with no money or connections this way: “With my friends, I was going in their stead. They wanted to go. But they didn’t have the–I don’t know what it is. It’s not courage. It’s not ambition. It’s the cat and monkey spirit. Let’s see what’s over there. Let’s just have a look.”
This explanation might make little sense to a reasonable person, but then Eugene’s not just unreasonable: In this book, he’s also not a person–he’s a muse. The engaged reader will fall under his spell and may find him or herself undertaking more daring cooking projects, or taking the day off from work to go to the park. As for me, I leapt up from the couch in the middle of a chapter, opened all the windows in the house and painted an acrylic autumn tree on my living room wall. It’s clear that, for better or worse, Eugene inspired Clark in the extreme, and her intent in this work seems to be to pass on that experience to us–which she does.
This is a book to be carried around and read at lunch and on the bus in the morning. It should be savored and drawn out like the courses of an elaborate meal, experienced and drunk in. Because, all told, Eugene Walter is a poet and a character well worth knowing, even if, by the end, we don’t know him very well.
Emily DePrang is an intern and writer for the Texas Observer. She is also enrolled at the University of Texas, where her parents believe she is attending classes.