For the sake of all human kind, read and appreciate the image provided by John Jeremiah Sullivan in his essay “Feet in Smoke” (collected in 2011’s Pulphead, p. 52). The author sits in a hospital room with his brother, Ellsworth, a musician recently electrocuted by a microphone while rehearsing in a garage:
How could he know he’d been dead, when he didn’t even know we were in a hospital, or that anything unusual had happened to him? Had a sudden clarity overtaken him?
“What was it? What was your vision?”
He looked up. The tears were gone. He seemed calm and serious. “I was on the banks of the River Styx,” he said. “The boat came to row me across, but…instead of Charon, it was Huck and Jim. Only, when Huck pulled back his hood, he was an old man…like, ninety years old or something.”
Sullivan is a superior essayist. Another touching, insightful, and well-regarded essay of his is “Mr. Lytle: An Essay,” about his friendship with the aging American scholar and writer Andrew Nelson Lytle.
But it’s the image Sullivan (or his brother, as it were) composes of Huck and Jim ferrying the boat across the River Styx, delivering the dead to the afterlife, that remains vivid in my mind. Huck, a character like Peter Pan – eternal youth personified – made old. Back on a raft. Still and forever on a raft.
(image credit: Joachim Patinir’s “Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx” 1515-1524)