Letter 17: “Girl With Curious Hair”

Dear Mr. Wallace,

As I came to the last page or two of “Girl With Curious Hair” and realized where you were going with this one, I began having flashbacks to “Tell-Tale Heart.”  I had my suspicions about the narrator, “Sick Puppy,” from the beginning, but by the end they were all confirmed:  Sick Puppy is a freakin’ psychopath.

However, he doesn’t come across as mentally deranged at first.  He is such an enigma of a character, a far more subtle psychopath than the narrator of Poe’s popular short story.  His opinions of Keith Jarrett and other “Negro” performers and his unabashed description of his fetish for English Leather cologne commercials paint him in a rather odd, perhaps quirky light.[1]

But when Sick Puppy and Gimlet and the rest of the gang arrive at the Jarrett concert, things slowly but surely go downhill.  The peculiar behavior from Gimlet and Cheese and Big is to be expected.  They are, after all, a bunch of LSD-popping[2] punkrockers.  One would expect them to be hallucinating and to be growing paranoid about those sitting around them.  But in the midst of their almost comical shenanigans, the enigma that is Sick Puppy becomes more and more peculiar.  What once seemed to be simply personality quirks become evidences of pure psychopathy.

Not only does he have bizarre sexual fetishes, but he is obsessed with burning people with his golden lighter.  He also works as a corporate liability lawyer and finds a sick satisfaction with winning cases against litigants who have a legitimate case and were genuinely hurt by the products produced by the companies he defends.  He cherishes those victories with an almost child-like glee.

The enigma only deepens when you consider how well-dressed and well-spoken he is.  He goes to the concert in professional business attire surrounded by those with multi-colored hair and stereotypical punkrocker clothing.  He uses his share of five-dollar words, but his vocabulary is often stilted and awkward.  His word choices work, but just aren’t quite the right word for the occasion.[3]

The mystery begins to unravel as Sick Puppy reveals his back story in a conversation with Cheese out in the lobby.  He comes from a thoroughbred military family, but is denied enlistment based on failed personality tests.  Not even pleas from his father – a high-ranking official in the Marines – are enough to overturn the decision.

He then goes on to describe his hatred for his father because of the severe physical punishment he endured when his father caught him engaging in an incestuous act with his sister.  This experience might explain – in part – his fascination with burning people, and it might explain – in part – his psychopathic tendencies, but it also provokes more questions.

In Poe’s story, there really is no explanation given as to why the narrator is obsessed with his housemate’s eye and why that obsession leads him to murder.[4]  He is simply a very disturbed, obsessive young man who is driven crazy by another man’s physical deformity, and then driven further into madness by his guilty conscience. 

But with Sick Puppy, we are given some possible clues into the causes of his neurosis.  Is it because of the incident with his sister and the traumatic punishment by his father?  Did this push him over the edge?[5]

Or was he already disturbed to begin with?  Was this incident that could have been written off as childhood curiosity a sign of deeper psychological problems?  He did fail two military personality tests after all.

Or is it the LSD?  He claims that he isn’t affected by the drug like his friends are, but is that the drugs speaking?  Which perhaps brings much of his story into question?  How much of what he says about anything can be trusted?

Unlike Poe, you give a very complex portrait of psychosis.  The human mind is extremely enigmatic.  Actions deemed normal can seldom be traced to a singular cause or motive, and even more rarely can this be said of an aberration or abnormality.  Is the cause of Sick Puppy’s “sickness” one of the things mentioned above?  A sum total of the parts?  Or is it something not even mentioned here that is being covered up by an unreliable narrator on an acid trip?

As with most neurosis, we will probably never know.

[1] And this is, after all, a DFW story.  It doesn’t take long to come to expect such “quirkiness” in your stories.

[2] Does one “pop” LSD?  I have neither taken drugs nor gone through a DARE program, so I am not sure of the appropriate verb to describe one’s ingesting of LSD.

[3] Which seems to be a bit of an ironic twist that the writer who can always find – or even create – the right word for the right occasion is able to create such awkwardness in a character’s diction.

[4] At least I can’t remember if there is an explanation given.  It has been several years since I read the story.

[5] And should further blame be placed on his father for keeping adult magazines in a place where his young children can find them?


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