Most of Fup feels like a comedic short story. Like more profane Charles Portis or less absurd George Saunders. Maybe the sort of thing John Kennedy O’Toole might have written if he’d been alive to keep writing. But Fup stands apart for where Jim Dodge goes with his humor. He’s writing to amuse, to be sure. But he’s also writing to bring you someplace philosophical, perhaps even spiritual, but without any of the weight of philosophy or spirituality. It’s ultimately a tangle of homespun wisdom that lapses into folklore. The punchline isn’t really a punchline. It just might be a parable.
Fup is a very short book written in 1983 by a California writer named Jim Dodge. It’s not quite a novel, a bit much for a short story. Its sixty-odd odd pages tell the story of how an unlikely trio comes together and connects. Grandpa Jake, his orphaned grandson Tiny, and a rescued duck dubbed Fup.
Dodge is mostly a simple writer, but he has bursts of spirited wordplay. The legal firm that helps Jake get custody of Tiny is called Gutt, Cutt, and Freese. One of Jake’s poker buddies is named Lub Knowland. And, of course, the duck’s name, which Jake gleefully explains:
“Fup Duck. Ya get it? Fup…Duck.”
When she’s angry, Fup’s snapping beak sounds “like a speed freak playing castanets.” A shot of powerful whiskey is like “the compression stroke in the cylinder of a D8 Cat.” At one point, for a single paragraph, the omniscient third person follows the thoughts of a wild boar. As a writer, Dodge is nothing if not playful.
Tiny is orphaned when his father dies during the test flight of an X-77 (not a real thing) and then his mother drowns after cracking her head on a wet dock and falling into the water. On the second page, you can see that Fup isn’t just some cute animal tale. A three year old boy left in the car wonders why his mother isn’t coming back. He struggles with the car door and eventually gets out. He calls for his mother, crying and afriad. He comes to the lake and remembers this vividly after he’s grown up:
His mother floating face down as if she were looking for something she’d dropped on the bottom of the lake.
At which point an ornery and nearly toothless old coot named Jake gets an unusual letter telling him his grandson has been orphaned. The letter is also unusual because Jake is the type of backwoods hermit who doesn’t get much mail.
There were occasionally envelopes from the government, but he didn’t want anything from them and couldn’t think of anything they might want from him, so those he chucked in the fireplace.
So Jake and Tiny come together and form an unlikely pair. Early on, they find an orphaned duckling and raise it into a big fat mallard hen with a strong opinion about lots of things. And now our trio is assembled. Dodge stages their personalities in little vignettes like this:
Tiny glowered, then smiled.
The story of Fup is mostly the story of how these three interact and reveal themselves. For instance, Jake befriends an itinerant Indian named Johnny Seven Moons. Jake learns from Johnny Seven Moons a profound acceptance. So when Tiny embarks on a minor Ahabic obsession with a wild boar named Lockjaw, who will figure prominently in the finale, Jake is inclined to just leave be. He has his reasons, superstitious and philosophical.
…obsession in any form was, to Grandaddy’s experience, utterly treacherous; you couldn’t be born if you wouldn’t let go, and very few people could deliver themselves of obsession.
That’s probably the point of Fup’s languid desultory narrative. It circles back on itself with a sudden magic realism to imply a birth/death/rebirth cycle, connecting the processes as surely as Tiny and Jake and some random duck are connected. There’s a sense of wonderment at it all in Fup, a sense of letting it be and experiencing it.
Drink this. Be still. You’ll live forever.
That’s the sage advice Jake gets from an Indian bleeding to death in the alley behind a dive bar. The Indian has given him a formula for both whiskey and life. For me, it reads like a progression from Lewis Carroll to the Psalms to the Gospels.
Jake and Tiny play checkers, although Jake is more given to poker.
Tiny enjoyed the open, linear purity of checkers. Grandaddy favored games with hole cards, where your strength was in your secrets and you flew into the eye of chaos riding your ghost.
If we were all playing boardgames, Tiny would prefer a Eurogame by Reiner Knizia. Grandaddy Jake would be all in for something Ameritrash by Fantasy Flight. There’s also a breakdown of their respective opinions on different types of movies. Fup even has her preferences.
Whereas Jake is given to acceptance, whether it’s the chaos of a hole card in poker or just the natural order of wild boars being wild boars, Tiny is taken with fences. Divvying up the land. He doesn’t care whether it’s to keep things in or keep things out. It’s just the act of putting up limits and imposing arbitrary order. This will eventually snag something that maybe should have been left to roam. When that happens, Fup reveals her true purpose, born of a hole in the dirt to ascend into the sky in the name of…compassion? Letting go? Leaving the natural order to itself? As Jake notes:
“It just ain’t possible to explain some things, maybe even most things. It’s interesting to wonder on them and do some speculation, but the main thing is you have to accept it — take it for what it is, and get on with your getting.”
That’s the story in a nutshell. I don’t get the sense that Jim Dodge as a writer is too concerned with what your takeaway is. Fup’s birth, life, and death are as circular as a tautology. It is what it is.