Understanding Waxwing

“The fella turns out to be Blodgett Waxing, well-known escapee from the Caserne Martier in Paris, the worst stockade in the ETO. Waxwing’s specialty is phonying documents of various sorts — PX ration cards, passports, Soldbucher – whilst dealing in Army hardware also as a sideline. He has been AWOL off and on since the Battle of the Bulge, and with a death rap for that over his head he still goes into U.S. Army bases at night to the canteens to watch the movies – provided they’re westerns, he loves those shit-kickers, the sound of hoofbeats through a metal speaker across a hundred yards of oildrums and deuce ‘n’ a half ruts in the foreign earth makes his heart stir as id a breeze blew there, he’s got some of his many contacts to run him off a master schedule of every movie playing in every occupation town in the Theatre, and he’s been known to hot-wire a general’s jeep just to travel up to that Poitiers for the evening to see a good old Bob Steele or Jonny Mack Brown. His picture may hang prominently in all the guardrooms and be engraved in thousands of snowdrops’ brains, but he has seen The Return of Jack Slade twenty-seven times. “(Pynchon 249-250)

            The text mentions Blodgett Waxwing is a man who escapes the Caserne Martier (Weisenburger’s Companion notes the correct spelling is Mortier). Weisenburger references Life magazine and explains Caserne Mortier as a place where soldiers would be held for crimes like “murder, rape, theft of military or civilian property, or black marketeering.” (154) An escape is very unlikely to happen in the Caserne Mortier, which makes Waxwing’s success in escaping extraordinary. A waxwing is a type of bird that is mostly present in the Americas but has species worldwide. The waxwing is known for its presence away from their natural habitat and also for its hunting strategy, which is observing insects while perched on a tree and catching them in movement. Pynchon could be using this name to show similarities between Blodgett Waxwing and the bird. Blodgett did escape from the Caserne Mortier, where he should reside; to fly somewhere else just like the bird.  The fast moving and secretive fly catching nature of the bird also aligns with Blodgett’s ability to remain unseen. He has been absent without official leave for years while he continues to visit the Army base for western movies. The secretive aspect matches with his knowledge of the fake octopus incident, which he later mentions to Slothrop.

           Waxwing’s fondness of movies is mentioned in the text. It is difficult to understand Waxwing’s interest in Western films and why Pynchon specifically chose to mention Bob Steele and Johnny Mack. Bob Steele as an actor starred in many cowboy films with a specialty in whirlwind fighting, another example of a cycle in nature like “rainbow” in the title of Pynchon’s novel. Bob Steele as a person was rumored to have wasted 16,000 dollars a year on long plane rides, which connects to my point about Waxwing as a bird going places rather than the place he belongs. Steele’s acting in Near the Rainbow’s End (1929) was noted as one of his best performances. The film was described in The Billboard, a New York newspaper of movie reviews in the 1930’s, as realistic and “more than a routine western.” Johnny Mack or Johnny Mack Brown started out as a football player for University of Alabama. In 1927 while University of Alabama’s football team was playing in the Rose Bowl in California, Mack started his acting career by making a screen test for MGM. The films Mack appeared in often had gunfights and were thought of as having better stories than the usual Western plots. It is possible Pynchon mentioned Steele and Mack because they did not fit in the cowboy archetype; they were strange, just like many characters within Pynchon’s own novel. Many critics point out Pynchon’s mistake of using the film The Return of Jack Slade as an example one of Waxwing’s favorite movies because that film wasn’t made until 1955, which is ten years after the existence of the current characters within Pynchon’s story. However, I think Pynchon’s references are too advanced and developed for a mistake like this. 

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3 Responses to Understanding Waxwing

  1. There may also be a reference to Vladimir Nabokov’s important metafiction, Pale Fire (1962), which is made up of a 999-line poem and many pages of commentary on the poem. The first line of the poem is “I was the shadow of a waxwing slain.” It has been reported that Pynchon took a class w/ Nabokov at Cornell.

  2. Mike Wilson says:

    I like your attention to detail in terms of Blodgett Waxwing’s name. It’s certainly strange, but with Pynchon’s frequent use of peculiar names in Gravity’s Rainbow, I almost overlooked this one. Your post prompted me to look into Waxwing a little bit more myself, and I found some related ideas on the name.
    The Pynchon Wiki notes this:
    “The waxwing also eats the aril, the bright red seed-containing berry of the yew tree, thus dispersing the yew seed undamaged. The yew, mentioned in the text, is the tree of death. All parts of the tree, including the seed but not the aril, are poisonous and if eaten can literally kill a horse (also pigs, cattle and other livestock).”
    “Like the bird, this man Waxwing is able to safely carry and distribute lethal cargo, undamaged, without harm to himself.”
    Given this analysis, I think Waxwing’s name draws a parallel between his work and the bird’s feeding habits.
    The other important factor you pointed out is Waxwing’s affinity for Westerns. What Johnny Mack Brown and Bob Steele have in common is the fact that they were B-movie cowboys, and I don’t think there’s necessarily much relevance to Pynchon’s specificity in his allusions to them beyond that. I think he pointed them out to indicate that Waxwing is a fan of specific types of Westerns, B-movies — the low-budget crappy ones. It’s also no coincidence that these are distinctly American films that reflect American culture, especially as it’s romanticized by Americans. It’s perfect that Pynchon chose Westerns because of the fact that they are the product of the American imagination and project American sensibilities, and also because they focus on cowboys, who Americans love, and the rest of the world sees as symbols of America’s hegemonic attitude.
    I checked the Oxford English Dictionary, and it’s not just in my head, the word “cowboy” has eroded over time from American folk hero (1849) to jackass (1942) to reckless, wealthy brute (1972). Check it out:
    1849: “In the western U.S.: A man employed to take care of grazing cattle on a ranch.”
    1942: “A boisterous or wild young man.
    1972: “One who is recklessly unscrupulous in business.”
    (Other notable terms in this lineage include “cowboy diplomacy” as exemplified by George W. Bush.)
    I think that with these allusions Pynchon is drawing the careful reader’s attention to an important difference between America’s self-image and the way the world perceives it. It’s interesting to me that the revolutions in this word occurred only at its advent, during World War II, and the year before the publication of Gravity’s Rainbow. One has to assume that it was being very actively used at those times to warrant additional entries in the Oxford English Dictionary, and I think those changes were on Pynchon’s mind when he was writing this.

  3. cjc127 says:

    Mike, I appreciate the clarification on Bob Steele and Johnny Mack. I forgot to post my sources when I published this post but I looked at newspaper articles reporting movie reviews. In reading the reviews, I got the sense that the films Steele and Mack appeared in were different than many Westerners but I was not sure why, so thank you for pointing out the fact that they both usually appeared in low budget movies. Your analysis of the world “cowboy” was helpful as well. Your response enabled me to understand sections of my chosen passage that could not understand in my research. Thank you.

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