A plethora of profanity is like boils on the bum of an otherwise worthy book. A few months ago, I read a short, professionally published novel that was utterly spoiled for me, because of the bad language the author chose to spew from the mouth of nearly every speaker.
Portrayal of contemporary realism by basing dialogue on profanity and obscenity is heavy-handed, and panders to the lowest common denominator. Excess expletives quickly lose their emphasis value: It doesn’t take long before the four-letter words begin to blur, like overlapping graffiti on a ghetto wall. Disreputable dialogue does not make “finely drawn” characters. Swear words also make rotten substitutes for commas.
One reason for the proliferation of potty-mouthed prose may be because usage gurus turned against adverbs and adjectives, saying that they must be slashed from manuscripts; otherwise the writing would be labeled old-fashioned, maudlin, “purple prose.” But after excising those enriching parts of speech, nothing was left but the language of the gutter: “turning the air blue” with “colorful” speech, in the original sense of the sayings.
I tried to use such expressions judiciously in Irish Firebrands. It was a matter of character development: the important, named characters with speaking roles each used different approaches to cursing or swearing. One used only G-rated euphemisms; two characters occasionally profaned the name of Deity; one exhibited immaturity by acting out that included bad language and worse behavior; and one character swore one oath in the last chapter. The rest of them, named or unnamed, didn’t cuss at all.
The only entertaining oaths and curses I ever read were those that issued from the mouth of General Jean Dessalines (rendered in both French and English) in Lydia Bailey, a historical novel by Kenneth Roberts. I have no idea what Dessalines was really like, but Roberts did six years of research to write the book, so perhaps he found vitriolic verbiage in the General’s correspondence. Here’s a sample:
You horned animals….
Pick up your feet, you insects….
You one-legged dogs!
Sons of goats, fathers of pigs, brothers of cats!
You animals without milk!
You species of mules!
Son of a female goat by a little gray monkey….
Mer de merde….
Fimié pice! Flea manure!
Kakamacaque! Monkey manure!
Who told you all this kakacochon….
That fimié sec, that mer’ de mouton….
The smallest piece of fimié sec on a donkey’s backside….
Fifteen dried pieces of manure on a monkey’s backside!
There are twenty more, and they’re very creative, but they’re also profane. Dessalines is also the only character who habitually speaks in this manner.
The book that so disappointed me was bought from a mail-order catalogue, an impulse purchase made on the basis of the setting. Now I’m more careful about looking for writing samples, before I buy.
Judged by the Company One Keeps
One night in late October,
When I was far from sober,
Returning with my load with manly pride,
My feet began to stutter,
So I lay down in the gutter,
And a pig came near and lay down by my side;
Then I sang “It’s all fair weather,
When good fellows get together,”
Till a lady passing by was heard to say:
“You can tell a man who boozes,
By the company he chooses,”
And the pig got up and slowly walked away.