The Western Cannon
I ain’t gonna lie to ya. I first got interested in cannons back when I was in college. Back at Nusquam University. The Fighting Nuskies. (What’s a Nusky? What isn’t?) You see, at the time I went to my pal Andy (my name’s Andy too (no we’re not gay)), and I asked him, since he was an English major who knew about commas and semicolons and grammar and syntax and, most of all, literature (only he pronounced it “lit-ter-a-toor” really dragging out that “toor” part), stuff that I didn’t know the first thing about, to maybe recommend some books that I should read. It was graduation time and I hadn’t spent much time with books, litteratoor books, I mean. I read all my engineering books and physics books and chemistry books and materials books, just about anything I needed for my classes so I could graduate and become a materials engineer. Only, I hadn’t had much use for lit books, having just scraped by in English class never to return. Anyway, I figured it would be a good experience for me to understand my friend Andy’s world, since he always listened to me talking about fiberglass and steel (my two areas of expertise)—which is really interesting to me, but probably not so interesting to my pal Andy.
Well when I went to Andy, and asked him about the books, he told me if I really wanted to get into litteratoor, I should familiarize myself with the and then the word he used was “cannon.” Now I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about, but I didn’t want to tell him that because then he might go off on a tirade about how people used to know so much more about things that weren’t their areas of expertise, only I don’t know what time period he might be talking about since he and I, well we’re the same age. Then maybe after his rant he’d get all depressed or something, I dunno, but at least that usually meant we’d end up at the bar drinking and somehow not talking about anything that brought us to this point. My pal Andy, he’s smart, but I don’t always follow what he’s talking about. And I still don’t get most of the books and movies he likes, but whatever.
What I did get, though, was the cannon. Nusquam University, for some reason or other, has a cannon right there on campus and I went to check it out. I thought maybe Andy had gotten into Zen or something like that and so he thought if I stared at a cannon for a while, then maybe I wouldn’t understand at first (check), but that by looking at that cannon for a good long time, seeing its shape, checking out what it’s made of, studying its color, finding out how it operates, then maybe I’d bring all this together in my head and, bam!, I’d start liking The Great Gatsby or Moby Dick or Shakespeare or any of those other books he loves and I can’t make heads or tails of. Sorry to say it, but looking at the cannon there at Nusquam didn’t make me want to read anything, it made me want to look at cannons, learn how they were made, learn what they were made out of, and figure out how to make my own cannon.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized he meant “canon,” with only one n, so what he was saying was that he wanted me to read religious texts. Which is kinda weird when I think about it because he’s an atheist from the word go to this very day. Maybe there’s something in those religious texts that was gonna make me want to read or something, I just don’t know.
What am I getting to here? Well, years later, after I’d been a materials engineer for a fiberglass company and for a steel mill and for a general engineering firm and finally I’d become a manager of engineers, after getting my MBA, I decided to build my own cannon. Now if you’re anything like Andy (and if you’re reading that means you just might be (but since this sure ain’t litteratoor you might not be)), you’re not gonna be too interested in how I built the cannon, although you’d listen politely, smoking, wearing a black turtleneck, interjecting something or other every now and then, maybe asking about particular parts for use in a writing project later on, but mostly nodding, pretending like it all makes sense. But I won’t put you through that. In the end, I built a cannon. And I was proud of the cannon. I even fired the cannon. You see, I have plenty of land, and even though my neighbor lives close by (the land sprawls out back, but it’s kind of narrow), I knew he’d be all right with me shooting my cannon. Which I did every night. My neighbor even watched. He’d stand there as I prepared the shot, then he’d frown and shake his head and walk back inside his house.
I ain’t gonna lie to ya, though, whereas I didn’t get too many complaints, I did get some people who came over to the house to see the cannon. The first guy was this professor-type named Flowers. I think. Anyway, he came over to look at the cannon, he inspected it all around, even asked me how it was put together, only he didn’t seem to care too much for my explanation. He mumbled something about that not being the way it was done in his day, and I granted that, since he’s my elder and you’ve gotta listen to your elders. It’s just the rules. Andy’s not so much interested in the rules, but I am. In the end he said it was an okay cannon, but he asked if he could paint it. I didn’t see any harm in that, but I said Sherwin Williams was probably closed, seeing as how it was kind of late. But as luck would have it, old Flowers came up with the paint from his car. So I got out the flood lights, pointed them at the cannon, and in the end, well I ain’t gonna lie to ya, the cannon looked good. It was blue and white and on the side it said, “The Western Cannon.” When Flowers was done he was mighty happy with his work, said it was the defining principle that all other cannons would have to follow, then we set it up and fired it, my neighbor watching as usual. Then the professor and I drank some Scotch because classy folks who’ve graduated from college and gotten degrees and gotten good jobs, well they drink Scotch. That’s just the rules.
Flowers wasn’t the only one who came by to see the cannon. In fact, day after Flowers came by, a group of black guys, African Americans, wanted to see it. So I took them out back, asked them what they thought. Just like Flowers, they inspected the cannon (never realized there were so many cannon experts around), mumbled something about how it was typical, and asked if they could paint it. Well, I figured, why not?, you know? So what they did, they painted over the part that said, “Western.” It ended up looking like a flag made up of those colors on Jim Brown’s hat (Jim Brown being that running back who set a bunch of records with the Cleveland Browns who now just stands on the sidelines and wears this hat, which is good work if you can get it). They said that made it much better, then we loaded it up, fired it, neighbor went in his house, we drank some Scotch.
Plenty more people came by. There was a group of ladies (none were interested in me, though, just the cannon) who painted the cannon pink and then called it a symbol; there was a group of people who looked at my house and my SUV and the clothes that I wore and said they weren’t surprised that I owned a cannon; there was a group who wanted to take the cannon apart; there was another group that wanted to build a bunch more cannons similar to mine; there were all kinds of people. In the end, my cannon was painted all kinds of colors, and had even gotten a few modifications, but no matter who came over and what color they painted the cannon, in the end we always drank Scotch, fired the thing off, and watched my neighbor go back inside.
Finally, the people stopped showing up. Which was nice. I wanted some time alone, having had all these cannon experts over taking up every waking hour of my time away from my job. And then, wouldn’t you know it?, old Flowers came back. And he looked at the cannon. He said it was a sorry sight, and then he started looking all depressed. I offered to fire it for him, thinking that might cheer him up. But no. I offered him some Scotch. He said he wasn’t interested. He said it was time to go. So I walked him to his car. I felt bad for the guy. I guess I felt like I let him down.
After old Flowers took off, I went to the backyard, thought maybe I’d fire the cannon. You know? For old time’s sake. But when I got there, the cannon was gone. I turned around, like maybe it was somehow hiding behind me, but it wasn’t anywhere. I looked over at my neighbor. I noticed he had this confused look on his face. So I walked over.
“Hey,” I said.
At first I thought he was sad too because he didn’t say anything.
“I wonder where the cannon went,” I said.
“Cannon?” he said, like I was crazy or something. “There never was any cannon. I wondered what the hell you were doing every night. First it was just you, then all these strange people.”
“We were painting and firing the cannon,” thought maybe he was pulling a trick on me, so I wasn’t gonna give in. “You watched, too.”
“I watched all right. I watched a bunch of drunks playing like it was Civil War time or something.” Then he added, “Cannon? Wasn’t ever any cannon around here. None. Just a bunch of folks talking about something and playing with something that’s not even there.” Then he went back in his house.
So I got to thinking about my friend Andy who’d started this whole thing, and I decided that maybe he could make something out of it because Andy’s the kind of guy who can make something out of things like this, since it kinda reminded me of some of those books he talks about. In fact, it really reminded me of some of those books. Where nothing and no one follows any kind of rules. Yeah, I guess in a story like that things can just disappear. Or maybe people who aren’t crazy, well they can imagine things that were never there. Even cannons. Or canons. Or whatever. But Scotch, Scotch is real. It exists. And I figured, standing there, in the backyard all by myself, that I’d go visit my friend Andy and tell him the whole story. And then I’ll have him teach me how commas work, and I’ll pretend to be interested like he does when I talk about fiberglass and steel. And then I’ll tell him, “Listen, man, I know this is your area of expertise, but it ain’t pronounced litteratoor.” And afterwards, even though he hates the stuff, he and I, we’ll drink some Scotch. Cannons be damned.
Andrew Farkas is the author of Self-Titled Debut and is a frequent contributor to The Brooklyn Rail.