Better Late Than Never: An Introduction to Postmodern Blues by Victor Cabas

Cover illustration by Rachel Briggs

Below is the introduction I wrote to Victor Cabas’s novel “Postmodern Blues,” which was published in 2020 by Charlottesville, Virginia’s Hypocrite Press. The book can be purchased in hardcover or paperback format here.

I spoke with Victor Cabas about Postmodern Blues in early 2018, just a few weeks before he died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 69. Over Christmas break that year I’d found some of the early chapters he’d given me nearly a decade prior. As I re-read them that winter I found myself still riveted by the story, still laughing out loud, and finally, left wanting more.

“We’ve got to get moving on this thing and get it published,” I told him over the phone. “It’s too good not to be read.” Victor was a great believer in Time, and he moved at his own pace. I felt he needed a kick in the groin.

He seemed excited by my renewed interest, adding that it was basically done and that he’d read over it the past year and still liked it. “I’ll have my secretary send you the rest of it,” he said.

I was working as an editor in magazine publishing at the time, and suggested trying to get an excerpt published somewhere. He seemed open to the idea, but he forgot to send it. Then one day in late February I got a text from a friend telling me he was gone.

*****

Cabas began writing Postmodern Blues sometime in the 1990s, working on it off and on through the following decades with periodic bursts of sustained effort. Then he would leave it alone, for years even, perhaps for nearly a decade in one case. I stopped inquiring about the book during our phone conversations, as I could tell it nagged him that it wasn’t finished. But he was a man of many pursuits. Between teaching, working his cattle farm, playing weekly music gigs, and buying, selling and repairing vintage guitars — lots of them — there wasn’t always time to put pen to paper.

In the summer of 2008 he took a break from teaching summer school at the University of Virginia, and in a burst of output, much of the book was written. I remember him being giddy the day he handed me those first chapters. “It’s gonna be good,” he beamed with a Mephistophelian grin, before pausing. “Well … at least it’ll be funny.”

The novel tells the story of Jack Shock, an English professor who, as the novel opens, is drinking himself to near death in the highlands of Guatemala (where Cabas, in his words, “once got stoned in the biblical sense” by a horde of rock-wielding Mayans in a case of mistaken identity). The rest of the story unfolds in Washington, D.C. and the classrooms and downtown bars of Charlottesville. The main character, and much of the story, cribs from Cabas’s own life, but the two are far from carbon copies of one another.

Postmodern Blues is a book of many hats. On one level, it details a man’s struggle with alcoholism in almost Dostoevskian fashion; the novel’s cast of barflies and ne’er do wells leap off the page in vivid Technicolor and bear the blemished edges of a humanity not yet incised by the self-correction of digital culture. It is also a picaresque romp in the tradition of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, one of Cabas’s favorite books and one that Shock quotes from more than once — “Hide, and if they find you, lie.” For Jack Shock, “they” are the Bernard Vandillinghams, Charlie Bledsoes and Jackson Prileaus of the world.

Thomas Wolfe once observed that all fiction is largely autobiographical. As such, it is no surprise that the character of Shock shares some qualities with the author, but for those who knew him, it’s obvious it’s not a facsimile of the man. The sections in the book that satirize academia recall Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, a work Cabas himself taught in “The Jim Class,” along with Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and Huckleberry Finn.

The novel’s apocalyptic pull recalls Joseph Conrad as well as Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano, another tale of rot and exile in Paradise by way of demon rum. But perhaps more than anything else, Postmodern Blues is a love story, shot through with every beautiful and problematic complication our capacity for loving (and loathing) creates.

As for Shock, Cabas said he based him in part on a professor he had while earning his Ph.d in upstate New York. The professor was a Texan of the Rabelaisian sort who dedicated his book on Conrad’s “metaphysics of darkness” to Larry, Moe and Curly — a signature Shock adopts himself. Cabas told me a story years ago about how one afternoon the two were walking to a bar, seeking sanctuary from the brutality of a Buffalo winter, when they passed a strip club that had the portraits of the performers framed in the window, like you sometimes see on Bourbon Street. “She looks pretty good for a stripper,” Cabas remarked offhandedly. “I know,” his mentor deadpanned, “I was married to her.”

Throughout his professional life, Cabas remained suspicious of academics. Like Shock, he abhorred the cynicism of the postmodern ethic, and the idea that the critic is paramount. As Shock tells of his former student Susan Monteith:

I didnt want to sound like a college professor, not to her, not that I was much of one. Like Susan Monteith, I had pretty much had my fill of academic life. But I didnt feel like copping an attitude. Academia was no phonier than any other form of corporate self-aggrandizement. It hadnt always been the moral equivalent of Exxon and somewhere at someplace small it was probably still mostly about teaching. But while Id been at the University it had almost always had the stink of snake oil.

I first met Cabas as a student at the University of Virginia, when I took his “Mississippi In Song And Story” class, which mostly concerned the novels of William Faulkner and lyrics of bluesman Robert Johnson. He walked into the classroom at Bryan Hall the first day of class wearing dark sunglasses, a straw hat, torn jeans with a star patch over one knee, and Jesus sandals. As he was walking in, he started addressing the class. “If I had taken this class at your age,” he said, “I would’ve dropped it in a New York minute, because you are going to work. I went to summer school at the University of Hawaii, and let me tell you, it ain’t exactly an intellectual powerhouse.” He seemed more Douglas MacArthur than Jerry Garcia, despite the appearance. It turned out to be the best — and most challenging — course I took at UVa. I’ve heard others say the same.

With Cabas in 2005. Charlottesville, Virginia.

“The saying is, those who can’t do, teach — but it’s a noble profession,” he once said. His students well recall such banter — and how he took teaching seriously. But it always bothered him when professors talked down their students and his humor was an honest balance. He felt that books had transformative power and could change lives, and he seemed to genuinely care for each of them. “Dr. Cabas never had children but often thought of the many students he worked with at the College as his sons,” wrote Kenneth Townsend, a friend and economics professor at Hampden-Sydney, shortly after his passing.

Much like Shock’s, Cabas’ father was an Air Force Brigadier General and renowned war pilot named Victor N. Cabas, who passed away at the age of 98, just six months after his son died. The elder Cabas flew more than 300 missions in World War II before flying combat missions in Korea and Vietnam and was said to have seen more aerial warfare than any man on earth. Born in Newport News, Virginia, the younger Cabas spent much of his youth in South Carolina, where he attended high school and was something of a military brat as a kid, living in England and Hawaii for a spell.

It was at UVa where Cabas encountered Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick for the first time, and the book made such an impression that it inspired him to become an academic. He was accepted to the University of Virginia School of Law, but after sitting in on classes as an undergraduate, he decided it was like “reading your car manual over and over again.” Instead of pursuing law he accepted a scholarship at State University of New York at Buffalo where he wrote his dissertation on the use of meta-drama in Shakespeare’s plays and earned his doctorate in literature in 1974.

In the mid-70’s he began his academic teaching career in the English department at the University of Virginia. He did not put himself up for tenure and started teaching at Hampden-Sydney shortly thereafter in the Rhetoric department, where in addition to writing, he taught Shakespeare, Melville, Faulkner, the Civil War, American Blues Music, and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, as well as other subjects.

However, it was actually music that was Cabas’ foremost love in life, especially the blues of the Mississippi Delta, and in particular the songs and guitar playing of Robert Johnson. Those sentiments are echoed by Shock:

I remember the first time I heard that voice [of Johnson’s]. I was at a party, and I had just taken a hit of reefer. The song was ‘Kind Hearted Woman’ … The counterpoint of voice and guitar, both distorting sound, the voice like a record slowing down, and the triplet A chord on the seventh fret . . . And then soaring above it came that eerie falsetto ‘Oo, baby, my life won’t be the same,’ the sound rising above the forlorn desire of the words themselves.

Cabas was never happier than when he was playing guitar, whether on one of his beloved arch-tops or some obscure electric belted through a vintage tube amp. He knew a great deal about American roots music and as a guitarist he was a respected bottleneck slide player, with a raw, feral style that befitted his personality. According to Townsend, Eric Clapton once called Cabas’ house and asked if he’d be playing a party the Brit was attending in the area. Vic responded, “Eric who?”

In the book, Shock repeatedly filters the events of his life through the prism of old blues lyrics from masters like Johnson, Son House, Bukka White, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Still, the curiousness of this tendency is not lost on him as a Southern white male:

Why did I identify with a black man whose world I could know only in books and records? Maybe it was the car wreck that orphaned me as completely as if my father had died in it too. Or the sick in me that attracted me to a woman like Donna Gordon Prileau.

I heard many stories over the years from Cabas’ bacchanalian, post-divorce drinking days, a time that he recalled fondly. A large section of the book transpires in the bars of Charlottesville’s downtown mall. Back then, Charlottesville’s downtown scene was an orbit of artists, writers and scholarly inebriates. The playwright and actor Sam Shepard lived nearby, raising horses, and could often be found slaking his thirst at Miller’s, a former drugstore turned bar. Cabas was regarded as a man to know in bohemian circles, frequently sought out for mentoring from aspiring artists and musicians. “Charlottesville bartenders. All of them had college degrees. About half of them were English majors,” Shock muses. This was when Charlottesville was still a laid-back Southern college town, quite different from the hedge-fund village and showpiece it would become. Dave Matthews had just started performing in public and would give Cabas his early demos for feedback. Matthews even played the role of a drunken fratboy in a play Cabas wrote that was performed at the local playhouse Live Arts. Shock, it seems, might have known him too:

Sonnybuck and I walked along the bar, past the musician strumming an old Ovation guitar. It was a guy named Dave who had worked there two years ago when he had a Mr. T haircut. Eyes half-closed, he was singing ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ as if everything in his world depended on it.

Even after he quit drinking, Cabas continued to perform on Charlottesville’s downtown mall through the late ’90s, setting up on the street, sometimes solo, sometimes with a small band, and playing for tips. He played and sang through an amp, so you could hear that unmistakable bellow from the other side of the mall. But someone eventually complained, as people are wont to do, saying he was violating the noise ordinance, and that was that. Understandably, the old townie was ticked; he loved playing there, seeing his friends and a cavalcade of former students among the crowd.

As I think back on these elements that were part of Cabas’s world I am reminded of something the novelist James Salter once said: “There comes a time in life, when you realize that everything is a dream; only those things which are written down have any possibility of being real.” For everyone who knew Victor, and his fans were numerous, we’re lucky to have this record from the man. It is not a portrait of his life, but in a way, it does feel real, as real as a visit with an old friend, one who now lives in that undiscovered country from which no traveller returns.

— Caine O’Rear
Mobile, Alabama (January 19, 2020)

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