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An excerpt from Gabriel Blackwell’s Babel

This story is excerpted from
Gabriel Blackwell’s Babel,
available now from Splice.

Now alone, knock on Bobby (that most famous of wooden noumena, the not-in-use-just-now dummy of ventriloquist Signor Blitz (known mainly for the spectacle of his opening routine (involving an as-yet-unhandled Bobby firing a pistol at Blitz from across the stage as Blitz enters (the ventriloquist, seeming to exhale cordite, having caught the bullet between his teeth (the trick being that Bobby talks all the while (first, professing anger at his constant manipulation by Blitz, then, once he has pulled the trigger, expressing sorrow at having killed his master (Blitz slumping over on his back opposite Bobby, both thrown backwards by the force of the shot (Antonio Blitz, incidentally, formerly strictly a magician, signature illusion: the bullet catch (given up for the safer profession of ventriloquism when the trick went wrong and tore off the outer lobe of his left ear (leaving him with what could kindly be called an “unfinished” look (proving the man you’ve just seen to be, actually, not Antonio Blitz at all but an impostor (proving him to be, rather, an American, Clive Robertson (claiming to be the “Original Signor Blitz” (having never seen the original “Signor Blitz,” actually a third man whose “true” identity has never been established (officially, as given at admission to Bethlehem State Mental Hospital: “Signor Blitz” (as reported by the Boston Post in 1889, twelve years after the second Signor Blitz had passed away in Philadelphia, not from a shooting accident (obituary in the Philadelphia Register listing him as Antonio Van Zandt, Englishman (son of a woodworker and amateur astronomer interested particularly in what he called the “ghost moons” of Mars (which would be found, later, to have been real moons, Phobos and Deimos (by Asaph Hall, in 1877, the year the elder Van Zandt’s son, Antonio, was laid to rest (having passed away from complications following surgery to remove his gall bladder (which organ was said to have become so diseased that, when the surgeon nicked it with his scalpel, it issued a sound later described as “the knock of a walnut falling upon a wood-beam” (this in the journal of a man so definitively not present at the surgery as to call into question his motives for recording such information (said journalist being also the author of the poem ‘Leonainie’ (claimed by some to be the “lost” last poem of Edgar Allan Poe (a claim in turn accepted by many others (even elaborated upon―the poem, written after Poe’s death, had been “accomplished by another body, but manifested within the same brain,” according to no less an eminence than Alfred Russell Wallace (a great debunker of hoaxes, taking on the Flat-Earthers and those who believed in Martian canals (descendants, at least spiritually, of the credulous masses hoodwinked by the Great Moon Hoax perpetrated by Poe’s editor, Richard Adams Locke (whom Poe thought had unfairly and without credit scooped out the innards of his ‘The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfall’ (leaving the whole thing hollow, in the author’s estimation (Poe then creating, in response, the so-called ‘Balloon-Hoax,’ which asserted much less fantastic fantasies on the part of a Mr. Monck Mason (based upon Mr. Thomas Monck Mason, balloonist, yes, but also theologian and flutist (the flute a woodwind, of course, inspirited wood, hollow and lifeless but producing a distinctive tone when breathed into (

) unlike that produced when knocking on wood only in pitch), immune, impossibly, to charges of being filled with hot air), made mean-spirited through the caprices of public attention), given that his intention had never been to hoodwink, really, merely to entertain), and who now owed Poe a living Poe could never seem to earn through his own labors), who had ascribed the “discoveries” to one Sir John Herschel, a very real astronomer annoyed at having to answer for the bizarreries brought into being by Locke’s imagination), as he put it, “creatures willing to credit all but their own credulity”), a man who had become cynical through his powerful yearning to believe, finally, in something, anything)―anything could be believed of Poe!), albeit one that perhaps should have stayed “lost”), a poem whose most memorable lines―“Songs are only sung / here below that they may grieve you― / Tales but told you to deceive you”―are at least fair as ars poetica); it would be another fourteen years before a psychologist would review the literature and describe Pseudologia fantastica for the first time, and sixty years before Baron Münchhausen’s falsifications, amplified by his imitators’ tales of him, would become Baron von Münchhausen, father to fibbers the world around); the sound also more famously recalling the discovery of a hidden passage, a hollow recess), made necessary, it was rumored, due to Van Zandt’s “hollow leg,” his high tolerance for alcohol), a year perhaps more significant for the invention of the carbon microphone, a device to electrically reproduce and thereby transport sound), named for a god of fear and a personification of dread, respectively)―a man, incidentally, often said to have been “not all there”), survived by his wife, neé Eaton, with whom he had no children), a set of circumstances at least one Massachusetts “Safety Coffin” manufacturer found advantageous, claiming that his expensive precautions had raised Blitz from the dead, or at least had saved him from a costly mistake)―the staff evidently at least somewhat taken in, as the story then leaked to the press); Van Zandt performed as “Blitz, Jr.” until he took up ventriloquism and Bobby, renouncing or reversing his false heritage upon becoming a “father”), a claim to originality as obviously empty as it was vehemently made), a man about whom nothing is known prior to his career as the “Original Signor Blitz”; perhaps his “true” identity is just another illusion?), though, given that the existence of these doubles served to multiply the man’s fame more than any of his own efforts had, it seems unkind to condemn one and all as “impostors”), like a set of quotations left open), “blank” rounds still capable of propelling anything left in the supposedly-empty barrel at dangerous velocities), utterly unconvincing on stage alone, as though half an act, even before he made himself half an act), the act immediately becoming invisible from the orchestra section), perhaps evidence of this man’s great self-loathing, a not-so-hidden threat of suicide), which, it seems to you, is less impressive than his manipulation of the gun, if only because the latter seems so impossible), trials of which had resulted in a gap in the ventriloquist’s smile even though no projectile was ever fired)―the gasp this produced sounded as though all of the air had been sucked out of the room through a straw), which, being the opening, gives the rest of the routine a superfluous air, as if the best has come and gone before the act has fairly begun), empty and somewhat deflated, possibly also, you now realize, an impostor): reassure yourself that there is no longer anything there aside from the briefest of echoes, the sharp rap of knuckles on wood and an emptied out double of that sound, signifying that whatever had given this dummy, Blitz’s “son,” the appearance of life has departed.

About Gabriel Blackwell

Gabriel Blackwell is the author of the short story collection Babel, available now from Splice. His other books include Madeleine E. (Outpost19, 2016), The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men: The Last Letter of H. P. Lovecraft (CCM, 2013), Critique of Pure Reason (Noemi, 2013), and Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer (CCM, 2012).