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Duck and Goat and Passover

Reviews of Mamet's new children's books.

David Mamet. "The Duck and the Goat". Illustrations by Maya Kennedy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. 32 pp. Cloth $16.95.

David Mamet. "Passover". Illustrations by Michael McCurdy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 49 pp. Cloth $14.95.

Ten pages into David Mamet’s "Passover", the little girl says, “Tell me the story again,” underscoring a recurring theme in Mamet’s works for children. In many of his children’s plays, most notably Dark Pony and The Poet and the Rent, the narrative focuses on the process of artistic production, a process that is present as well in his two recent works of children’s fiction: the short story "Passover" and the storybook "The Duck and the Goat".

In "Passover", the ritual of the feast is performed by a woman and her granddaughter and, between the traditions of an ancient holy day and a family’s current observance of it, Mamet reveals a third "Passover". As the old woman tells the story of her own grandmother in addition to the familiar tale of the Egyptian exodus of the Jews, she gives her granddaughter a more complex understanding of family, ritual, and sacrifice. During the Polish pogroms, the grandmother’s grandmother also staged destruction to avert bloodshed; the family story, however, is about one determined woman seizing control, about willful survival rather than divine intervention, creating an instance of passing-over that is more personal and significant for the girl.

Readers familiar with the style of Mamet’s “adult” works will not be surprised by "Passover": the action is limited to a small, confined place, the characters suggest more than they actually say, and the dialogue is sharp, focused, every word absolutely essential. As the grandmother instructs the girl in the significance of each ingredient of the Seder, her sentences often trail off or resist closure, but sharing this fragmented family story clarifies for the girl the significance of the religious festival as well as her cultural identity. The grandmother is aware of her transitional position as facilitator; she includes anecdotes about her own girlhood and, even as she prepares for the feast to come, she looks into the garbage at the remains of her breakfast of toast and tea. The girl asks to hear the familiar story for the pleasure of the telling and to establish her claim to a line of strong women who were taught the Torah even when it was only taught to boys. This cooperative performance by the women in the family is a gift to the granddaughter as well as a challenge.

By contrast, "The Duck and the Goat" is rollicking, earnest, and crafted (at least superficially) for young children. A Goat and a Duck leave for work in a firetruck and a burst of primary colors, encounter heavy traffic, and abandon the highway in favor of the sea. They shortly encounter a Turbanned Turk, chained as a marker float, who pines for a Porcupine partnered with a Polar Bear in the Ballets Russes. The playful language, the abundant references to exotic locations, and the open, almost unfinished look of the illustrations mark the tale as fantasy. However, Mamet gradually reveals another story about storytelling and, with each twist of the narrative, forces the reader to question the boundaries of the tale and the teller; ultimately, we discover, the text has little to do with "The Duck and the Goat". Halfway through, the travelers encounter a powerful Anchovy who evokes the Laws of the Sea, Chance, and Romance to resolve all of the narrative conflicts in a few jovial lines. He declares that the Porcupine shall quit dancing and “dwell in peace” (p. 15) with the Turk, and that "The Duck and the Goat" will be safely returned home. The Anchovy has “put it all aright” (p. 18), and so the Polar Bear wishes us an elaborately staged goodnight, an appropriate and altogether expected resolution for a children’s book.

What is less expected is the self-reflexive movement that follows. Above a replication of the book’s cover are the words: “"The Duck and the Goat" is the name of this tale” (p. 19). The narrator is revealed to be neither the third person omniscient voice with which the text started, nor the Anchovy whose speech restored order and sent us to slumber, but rather a Bobwhite Quail working overnight at the county jail. Instead of ending with bedtime, the Quail and his listener (presumably, the original omniscient voice) conclude by strolling out into the morning sun for toast and tea. The final page of the story bears the curious words, “And all the prisoners went free” (p. 24), paired with a drawing of a mass of tiny black footprints covering rolling green hills toward a blue sky.

The central tension is between freedom and captivity, adventure and home, but the boundaries between these terms are blurred. Repeated references to the drudgeries of labor ("The Duck and the Goat" suffering the press of work traffic, the Turk pining for his love while chained at sea, the Bobwhite Quail working the graveyard shift) are quickly transformed into moments of liberation ("The Duck and the Goat" avoid work altogether, the Turk cuts his moorings, the Quail emerges to enjoy his breakfast). Ultimately, the text extends beyond even the Quail’s narrative boundaries. The final two pages include the prisoners’ unexpected release from jail as well as the uninhibited dancing of the Porcupine, depicted as a whirl of pink tulle and quills under the words “The End.” (How one can reconcile the Turk’s own desire to be free with his willingness to compromise the Porcupine’s career is left a mystery.) The pleasure of this book is in the decentering of the young reader’s expectations of the narrative as to who is speaking, what is included, and for what purpose. Most significantly, Mamet creates a space of self-reflexive storytelling that emphasizes the pleasure of artistic expression and speech: the Anchovy’s exposition, the Polar Bear’s performance, the Quail’s tale, and, finally, the Porcupine en pointe.

KECIA DRIVER McBRIDE University of Tennessee, Knoxville