Uptown/ Downtown in Old Charleston
By Louis D. Rubin Jr.
University of South Carolina Press, 114 pp.
Louis Rubin appears at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 16, at McIntyre’s Fine Books in Pittsboro’s Fearrington Village with author Jill McCorkle.
The sensitive, lonely, romantic young man is a Modernist literary type, largely abandoned by the fast pace, harder edge and technological dryness of postmodernism. Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet and Proust’s Recherche are almost unthinkable now.
So Uptown/ Downtown in Old Charleston, Louis D. Rubin Jr.’s gentle, genteel (but not gentile) coming-of-age recollection, is resolutely old-fashioned. It uses Proust for an epigraph and is store with the romantic’s preoccupations: ships and harbors, night trains and night radio, baseball.
Rubin’s romanticism may have come from his social unrootedness: A Southern Jew (but not of the orthodoxy that provides strong community) from a family neither wealthy nor poor that moved frequently around Charleston during his youth, Rubin was an early misfit. “I inhabited two worlds growing up and was not wholly or fully of either,” he writes in his prologue; and then, much later, “I lived a kind of double existence.” It seems less a double life, though, than a marginal one.
Uptown/ Downtown recalls Rubin’s childhood in those margins: chanting or moaning voices overheard; paddling a homemade boat through the marshes of northern Charleston; sitting at a Ferris wheel’s latent apex. Not for nothing is one chapter called “The Left-Handed Glove” (a literal misfit), another “Finisterre.”
Rubin’s author’s note cautions that the nine “sketches and stories,” as he calls them, “were written as fiction and shaped for literary purposes. The authenticity being aimed at was not that of the recording historian.” The disclaimer, which befits the man who founded the fiction press Algonquin Books (you learn where the name came from in the prologue), is true as it flies, but Uptown/ Downtown is obviously autobiographical, only very thinly altered, and Rubin is right to give “sketches” top billing: Only a couple of the pieces, most notably “The Man at the Beach,” have the momentum and shape of a short story.
The rest are delivered leisurely, desultorily, speculatively, from a great distance by the 86-year-old author. Although only 114 pages, the book is intended for slow passage, perhaps in the spirit of Depression-era Charleston. The word “picturesque” abounds in the prologue, and although Rubin debunks Charleston’s postcard reputation, his writing pans slowly, sometimes nostalgically, over his experiences.
Yet Uptown/ Downtown is no yarn. Rubin’s prose has the formal rectitude and slight inflation of old journalistic writing, heavily reliant on the passive voice. No one calls albums “phonograph records” anymore. No one really writes like this: “Tasks were found for me to do, and one way or another the money was made available to enable the glove to be legitimately restored to my possession. Thereafter I missed no opportunity to take part in any pickup baseball games I could find in the area.”
From another author, Rubin’s style might seem affected, perhaps a put-on, or merely quaint. For Rubin it seems natural, and not only because it fits a Charleston already antique by the 1930s. The authenticity of Rubin’s voice is proved by its persistence, even when he leaves his hometown and his childhood behind. In “The St. Anthony Chorale,” the young adult Rubin takes a job as city editor of the Staunton, Va., News Leader. This sketched reminiscence, at 17 pages the longest piece in the book, features buses and trains, dark mountains and night radio, linotype and all-night diners. Its lovelorn protagonist—his fiancée has called off their engagement, causing him to flee New Jersey for Shenandoah—is dogged by loneliness. Such material puts readers on edge, its low shoulder riding dangerously close to the precipice of sentimentality. And “The St. Anthony Chorale” is sentimental. It’s also the best piece in the book.