Authors: Sean Carswell
Copyright Â© 2016 by Sean Carswell.
All rights reserved.
First Paperback Edition
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission of the publisher.
Please direct inquiries to:
PO Box 2547
New York, NY 10163
The following stories originally appeared in the following publications:
“Mad Nights of Springtime,”
The Rattling Wall
alifornia Prose Directory
“A Place Called Sickness,”
“The Wide Empty Sky,”
“Big Books and Little Guitars,”
“The Bottom-Shelf Muse,”
VLAK: Contemporary Poetics and the Arts
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Carswell, Sean, 1970- author.
Title: The metaphysical ukulele / Sean Carswell.
Description: New York, NY: Ig Publishing, 
Identifiers: LCCN 2016005397 (print) | LCCN 2016014399 (ebook) | ISBN 9781632460271 (Ebook) Subjects: LCSH: Authors--Fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Short Stories (single author). | FICTION / Literary. | FICTION / Alternative History. | FICTION / Satire.
Classification: LCC PS3603.A7764 A6 2016 (print) | LCC PS3603.A7764 (ebook) | DDC 813/.6--dc23
LC record available at
For my mom, who really did give me a notebook when I was seven years old and said, “If you're bored, write a story.”
“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” âJack Kerouac,
On the Road
“But it was heaven there, with ukuleles for harps.” âThomas Pynchon,
Table of Contents
Apparently, Herman Melville was a brilliant ukulelist. His biographers tend to leave this part out of his life. Obsessed with his big books, they forget his little guitar. Or perhaps they just get swept away in Melville's South Sea adventures, dreaming about the days after he deserted the
and wandered into the interior of a Polynesian island, convinced he'd find a tribe of beautiful, sexually available women. Or cannibals. Or both. The biographers romanticize Melville's time among the Tai PÄ«. They speculate about who the real Fayaway wasâthe Polynesian girl who offered herself to Melville. His very own gift basket. And think of what a treat she must've been for a twenty-year-old, mostly-heterosexual kid from puritanical New England, who had just spent a year at sea without a woman in sight, whose sex life amounted to trading blow jobs with whalers who had no real way of bathing, or else lubing his rod with blubber and masturbating to a little naked woman carved out of a whale bone. A few months with Fayaway must have been everything to him. Fayaway, who saw sex as natural as a breakfast of breadfruit. Who wouldn't be fascinated by Fayaway? Lonely, bearded men in dusty academic offices are
more in love with Fayaway than any other word Melville wrote.
When you consider that Melville was unable to walk during his first few weeks with the Tai PÄ«, and that he was convinced Fayaway was a cannibal, the romance is even wilder. She straddles his erection on a South Sea summer morning, and he wonders if he'll be the main course that night. Will Fayaway join in the feast? Will she think of him fondly as she chews a slice of his wounded thigh?
Of course you'll forget about the ukulele among a scene like this. But make no mistake. It was there.
The first ukulele in the Tai PÄ« tribe came from a Portuguese missionary. Melville was never clear about what happened to the missionary. Either the missionary left or the Tai PÄ« ate him. Either way, his
had been left behind.
changed over the years. Sun and rain caused the wood to warp and crack. The Tai PÄ« used it as a model and made their own versions of the tiny guitar. When the original strings snapped, they stretched the intestines of one animal or another to make new strings. Melville wondered about those intestines and where they came from. Was he strumming the stretched, dried, and cut digestive tract of the ill-fated missionary? Was Melville desecrating or honoring the missionary's life by strumming a tune from his guts? Would Melville's own guts be strung out over a miro wood ukulele and used to strum an island tune?
After several weeks, Melville's leg healed and all the sex
with Fayaway wasn't enough to shake his haunting visions of the Tai PÄ« eating him. He nestled the ukulele that Fayaway had given him as a gift and snuck out of the village. Melville carried the Tai PÄ« uke with him onto his next whaling ship, the
Conditions were rough on the
. The captain kept a close eye on the available food and refused to feed the whalers with enough of it. He wielded his power like the overseer of a Nike shoe factory, slapping his crew around, keeping them hungry, and remaining ever vigilant for new ways make them miserable. While no one murmured the actual word mutiny, the idea floated around before the mast. Amidst this scene, Melville would break out his ukulele. He played it under the Pacific stars, singing songs of Fayaway and freedom and food so plentiful that no one even thought about eating him. Later, after the mutiny went down and the ship docked in Tahiti and everyone but the captain was arrested, one of the sailors on the
claimed that Melville's songs inspired the mutiny. And maybe they did. Melville didn't stick around long enough to testify on his own behalf. He slid out of town and into the Tahitian wilds before the authorities got much out of him. Unfortunately, the ukulele was left on the
In April of 1843, Melville found himself stranded in Hawaii. At this point, he'd deserted two whaling ships and inspired a mutiny on the third. He had a hard time finding a fourth ship to take him back to Nantucket. He worked for a while
as a pinsetter in a bowling alley. In the evenings, he played his new taro patch ukulele in a Honolulu brothel. Somewhere lost to history is the man who rolled ten frames set by Herman Melville and listened to Melville strum a few songs on his uke before this Man Lost to History picked out a hooker and slid into one of the brothel's back rooms. This lost man probably never realized that two-thirds of his night's entertainment was brought to him by a sailor who would go on to be regarded as America's greatest author. All the lost man probably remembered the next day was the hooker.
For my part, I can't help thinking of all the high school boys who wish they'd met Melville the way the Man Lost to History did rather than by wading through the cetalogy sections of
What most people don't realize is that Melville's ukulele nearly led to the death of
. The novel, not the whale. It's a complicated story. The first thing that a twenty-first-century reader has to understand is that, in his day, Melville was a bit of a sex symbol. After he wrote his novel about his time with the Tai PÄ«, after his buddy Toby Greene returned from sea and swore that Melville was pretty much telling the truth with that novel, mid-nineteenth-century readers couldn't shake the image of the bearded rogue Herman Melville and his nights with Fayaway. In fact, Melville was the first American author to hold this dubious status. He had no way to know how to behave. Perhaps the biggest mistake he made was to hang out with critics. He
couldn't know about George Burns's famous statement that critics are like eunuchs at a gang bang. George Burns hadn't even been born yet. So this literary sex symbol made his first mistake by hanging out with the metaphoric eunuchs, Evert Duyckinck and William A. Butler.
Melville's second mistake came when he and Duyckinck crashed Butler's honeymoon.
Butler and his new bride were passing through western Massachusetts by train. Melville and Duyckinck met them at the Pittsfield train station. Before William Butler knew what was happening, Melville had absconded with the new Mrs. Butler. The two fled in Melville's carriage and headed for his ancestral manse, the Melvill house. William Butler was left behind to ride with Duyckinck. What happened between the two critics is also lost to history. By the time the critics arrived at the Melvill house, Herman had his ukulele out. The bearded rogue strummed his own composition, a little song called, “I Am the Man from Nantucket.” The new bride was on the verge of a swoon. No historian took note of either Duyckinck or Butler's reactions.
A year later, Duyckinck panned
in the New York
. Butler's review in the
was more than a pan. It was downright vicious. He called Melville disgusting and slammed the novel for its “maudlin and ribald orgies.”
Again, I can't help thinking of all the high school kids forced to read
who would read this review and scream, “What?! There were orgies in that book?! Where?”
Melville's ukulele played the final chord on his friendship with Nathanial Hawthorne, too. And what exactly was going on between Melville and Hawthorne, with Herman so enamored by Nathanial that he bought land next to Hawthorne's farm and moved the Melville family in? What was the subtext behind all of those long, loving letters that Melville and Hawthorne exchanged? Why were the two men so unhappy in the arms of their wives but so pleased with one another?
Maybe it's just me looking too closely into all of this, but when I read about Ahab telling the cabin boy he'll “suck the philosophy from thee,” I can't help recognizing that all of Ahab's philosophy is about spermaceti. I feel like I'm in on the joke. And I know of that fateful night on the Hawthornes' farm when Herman Melville broke out the ukulele and strummed his own composition, “You Give Me That Old Natty Glow.” Herman smiled as he sang it. Nathanial tapped his foot. Sophie Hawthorne paid perhaps too much attention to the lyrics. She burned red with rage. When the song was over, she turned to her husband and said, “Natty, what the fuck is going on here?”
And, finally, there are the years of failure. The four decades that passed between the time when
was published and when Melville died in obscurity. When his greatest work was panned. When he followed it up with a novel called
. When his flop piled upon flop, his debts grew
out of control, and he finally had to take a job at a custom house. When his fiction was ignored, his status as literary sex symbol was exchanged for middle-age, then old age. When his bad back and bad reviews relegated the novelist to writing poetry that no one read, and no one reads today. When his wife had enough of him and moved into another bedroom. When his kids had either preceded him in death or swore lifelong grudges against him. When arthritis finally crippled his writing hand.
The only thing left for the aging, obscure Melville was his ukulele. Even if arthritis had taken away his ability to pick the strings, he could still strum. His left hand was still fine, could still dance from one chord to another like jumping fleas. He would nestle the ukulele under his arm and, like so many Manhattoes, follow the streets waterward until he hit the extreme downtown of the Battery. He'd take a bench along the wharves at the southern tip of Manhattan and strum songs for the water-gazers there. Songs about Fayaway and sailors, men from Nantucket and writers who succeeded where he failed. Songs that drifted into the wind and the waves like the legacy he'd never see.