Gaytys and Dangs
My story title, “Among the Gaytys,” is a deliberate emulation of George P. Elliott’s “Among the Dangs” and a homage to a man who was my mentor long ago at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. For many in a certain writers’ generation the connection would be an automatic reflex: hear George’s name and “Among the Dangs” would pop into your mind. It’s his most famous story and the title of his once best-known collection, a book filled with stories that had been recognized with O. Henry and similar awards. “Dangs” itself was first published in Esquire in 1958. But now, sadly, George has been dead for many years and his literary reputation diminished to an obscure footnote.
Beyond the title echo, I deliberately didn’t reread “Dangs” in my autographed copy of the collection until after I wrote my own story. It turns out that what we have in common is a young anthropologist working on a degree sent to live among a primitive people to collect data for a thesis. But George told his story in the first person and covered a number of visits to the South American jungle world of the Dangs over several decades, including a “marriage” to a Dang woman and a half Dang son. George’s character takes on a role as an important seer in the Dang community. My Dwight is never anything but a shunned outsider, and with the Gaytys only once for a single year.
George told a group of us his Dang origin tale. He had been accepted into the artists’ community of Yaddo but felt trapped by the rules of the place, what he considered a form of confinement. He couldn’t bear to stay there the full term of the residency, and the night before he was about to pack up and leave, he endured a disturbing dream that contained the basics of “Among the Dangs.” It doesn’t take a psychologist to realize the displaced and trapped thematic connections between George at Yaddo and his fictional anthropologist in the Dang village. Interestingly, although George knew very little about anthropology, his creative imagination convinced a number of professionals that he was an expert. Some dream.
Rather than through a dream in the midst of confinement, my source for the Gaytys was an anecdote friends told me about their son’s residence in a remote Russian village among an isolated native people. At that time, the son was a PhD student doing a dissertation; now he’s a faculty member. The Russian government’s official assumption about those native people had them wearing colorful garb in their daily lives. But during the time my friends’ son lived among them, they wore ordinary clothing until a delegation of Russian authorities was scheduled to visit. Then they pulled out what amounted to their costumes and no doubt amused themselves by putting one over on officialdom.
There was, I knew, a short story in that material. Garb would be involved. But when I sat down to actually write, what came out was not at all what I expected, no authorities to be tricked, no young anthropologist in on the joke. The Gaytys don’t clown around. They have no sense of humor, at least not any that Dwight can discern in a full year. But what are they up to?
George ends “Among the Dangs” with a profound moral conundrum, typical of his work. His narrator has contributed to knowledge, received tenure and a professorship, thereby pleasing his American wife, but he wonders: “… whereas if I had stayed there among the Dangs much longer I would have reverted until I had become one of them, might not have minded when the time came to die under the sacrificial knife, would have taken in all ways the risk of prophecy—as my Dang son intended to do—until I had lost myself utterly.”
My own writerly inclination is more existential than moral, and the ambiguity of my ending disturbs some readers. Dwight just walks off. What happens to Gryx? Who or what is lost? Those frustrated readers demand to know. Perhaps the answer will come to me in a dream some night.
Share this Post