Peter S. Beagle, I See By My Outfit (Viking, 1965)

 

Voice 1: I see by my outfit what I am a cowboy

Voice 2: I see by my outfit what I was a cowboy, too

Both voices: We seen by our outfits what we was both cowboys —

If you had a outfit, you could be a cowboy, too

I See By My Outfit, Peter S. Beagle's second book, is not a novel but a true story. Or as true as any memory of youth can be, which in Mr. Beagle's case is probably pretty good — he wrote this travel memoir within a year after the trip it chronicles. In 1963, he and his best friend Phil crossed the United States on motor scooters — not motorcycles, motor scooters — starting from the Bronx in New York and going all the way to Menlo Park in California, just south of San Francisco. It was epic. Not the sort of thing you forget, if you survive it in the first place.

Young Peter was heading to California to be with his lady love, Enid. Strangely enough, not quite a century previously, another young writer made the same crossing, for the same reason. His name was Robert Louis Stevenson, and he followed his own lady love from Europe to the California coastline. He got a book out of it, too: The Amateur Emigrant, detailing his harrowing journey to America by cheap packet, then across the continent by train. (If he didn't have the freedom of movement Peter and Phil had, at least he didn't have to repair his own transport, as they did.) And curiously enough, Mr. Stevenson also went on to write remarkable novels, including the immortal Treasure Island. Coincidence? You decide.

The crystalline precision of Mr. Beagle's prose is a little looser in I See By My Outfit; he is recounting the days of a real life, the conversation of real young men in some very strange settings. But it is never sloppy — the dialogue has the easy, spontaneous rhythm of commedia dell'arte, riffs laid down on a well-known plot even where no script exists. Peter and Phil, friends since they were both four years old, share a landscape of dreams, jokes, music and myth. Their journey is seen through the scrim of that mutual world, and described through their cockeyed world view.

The plot is physically simple: Peter and Phil leave New York on a cold April morning and head West until they run out of continent, zigging as far north as Ann Arbor and as far south as Las Vegas along the way. They camp out in a tent with all the structural integrity of a jellyfish, trying to cook on a stove that specializes in second-degree burns. They repair their fragile scooters, Jenny and Couchette, piecemeal, en route, and badly. (Indeed, they reach the Pacific Coast before they realize they had the wrong spark plugs in the engines.) Without the kindness of strangers, they might very well starve, or die of exposure. As Peter yearns mentally at a waitress: "...wash our faces and take us home with you; we play with balls of yarn, sing little songs, eat all your food, and leave you pregnant." The last, at least, was not true; they were good Jewish boys disguised as beatniks with beards and motor scooters, but their poses of feral amiability are hilarious to watch.

Mr. Beagle says he took reams of notes, and even went back and interviewed friends and family members to make sure he got the details right. He had not yet learned, he says, to make non-fiction up...whatever the source and veracity of his details, he tells this story as he tells all others: with lucidity, joy and irresistible narrative authority. He really is one of the best architects of words America has produced in the last 50 years, and his own voice is as engaging as that of any of his fantasy heroes.

As a story, I See By My Outfit sings. It also grins, giggles, snickers, and then laughs so hard milk comes out of its nose. I don't think most 20-somethings realize how funny they are; but Mr. Beagle saw it clearly and wrote it down without mercy or apology. At the same time, he saw the rest of world just as well, and with the same maturity, heroes and monsters and all. The world is both more beautiful and more horrible than we are taught as children. Perhaps Mr. Beagle learned the truth on his travels, or maybe he just had better vision to start with — but he sees with an angelic clarity, and reports it all back to the reader.

A road trip movie and a coming of age story, this, with guest dialogue by Walt Kelly. (If you haven't read the Pogo books of Walt Kelly, some of the references and voice of this charming book will escape you, so I suggest you find and read them.) The sweetly demented world view of Pogo and Company informs the universe through which Peter and Phil move: part of their world was Kelly's Okefenokee Swamp. Other parts were Mordor and Syracuse (the two are confused once or twice); the jungles of Tarzan and the landscapes of the Lone Ranger and Tonto. We should all remember what it was like to live in that kind of personal make-believe. If you've forgotten, I See By My Outfit will remind you.

Peter and Phil were still living in the composite world of their shared youth when they started this trip, and they rode slowly out of their personal Faerieland and into adulthood as they crossed the continent. What we see through their eyes enriches our own journeys.

[Kathleen Bartholomew]

illustration from Abner Graboff's cover art for the 1965 Viking hardcover edition of I See By My Outfit




Some Notes From Behind The Curtain [courtesy peterbeagle.com ]: