This story originally appeared in our print publication, The Occasional Magazine.
Words by Nan Pincus, Photos by Eric Franklin Shook
I had dark hair and she had blonde. She stayed out all night watching movies in the city and I woke up early to run trails in the woods. She was in high school a decade before I was born. And of course, she was entirely fictional.
But Bentley Saunders Harrison Matthew, called Rat by her friends and foes alike, was my closest pal, my wisest mentor, and the first time I really saw myself in literature. Even if she had the kind of technical know-how, nonchalance, and independence that it seemed unlikely I could ever achieve. She also was the one who introduced me to Hi-Fi.
In 1982, Daniel Pinkwater, a radio humorist, published a young adult novel. This book, tastefully titled The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, was seemingly about two boys and their adventures trying to outwit a mad scientist. But for me, it was a book about the girl named Rat who taunted the boys. Where they had passing interests, she had interesting passions that she pursued with diligence and verve.
One of the two boys narrates the novel and through his straight man lens we see Rat as a source of knowledge on sex, cars, movies, and Hi-Fi. Their first impression of her is pure intimidation.
“Rat was pretty outspoken. She had a lot of things to say about James Dean and the things she would have been willing to do with him, and no one else, if only he had not died. Winston and I got the impression that Rat knew a lot more about sex than we did, so we kept off the subject so as to not appear ignorant.”
The boys also stay quiet when they visit her family home, and the subject switches to Hi-Fi. Rat is in full command, eager to show off her system.
“Keep quiet,” said Rat, “everybody’s still asleep. We’ll go to my soundproof room.” I admit to having been a little bit scared.
The narrator’s fear is somewhat justified once they get into the room.
“You could shoot a cannon in here and nobody upstairs would hear a thing,” Rat said.
However, Rat is really a gracious host and teacher.
“This is my hi-fi,” Rat said, “I’ll bet you guys have never seen anything like this. My Uncle Flipping put this together about thirty years ago. In those days, they really knew something about sound. My father helped me fix up this soundproof room when Uncle Flipping gave me all the equipment. Behind the drapes, there’s twelve inches of fiberglass batting, and the walls and floor are floating on rubber mountings. There’s an electric fan that goes on with the lights to change the air, or it would get plenty stuffy in here.”
Rat doesn’t just have a hi-found system. She has a vacuum tube system with mono speakers.
Naturally, we wanted to hear Rat’s hi-fi. She flipped a bunch of switches on the amplifier. It was basically a big, black metal box about the size of an air conditioner, with gigantic blackened tubes sticking out of the top. Various red lights came on when Rat flipped the switches, and there was a low, buzzing humming sound in the room.
“You give the tubes a minute to warm up,” Rat said.
Along with some more exotic additions…
“That is the Klugwallah 850-ohm Sound Reproducing System,” Rat said, “and this is a custom-built amplifier. Don’t stand too near it when I turn it on; it can electrocute you at a distance of a foot on a humid night. This, here,” Rat said, indicating another giant piece of wooden furniture, “is a free-standing Fluchtzbesser turntable. Inside that wooden cabinet is an eleven-hundred pound piece of granite. Yes, this here is about the finest hi-fi ever assembled in the city of Baconburg.”
Once it’s playing, Rat is the type of joyous audiophile we all want to be.
Through all this Rat was hopping around, snapping her fingers, slapping her knees. At one point, she put her mouth close to my ear and shouted something. I couldn’t make out what she was saying. I think it was something like, “Great mid-range tones, huh?”
The soundproof room was as much as a metaphor as a setting for Rat. It showed how impenetrable she was to societal bullshit. She was well-aware of her appearance, habits, and total devotion to her hobbies, but she created a space for herself to exist authentically in the soundproof room. In her cushion-walled basement, she listens and dances to music at a bone-shaking volume. Though it appears to be an image of solitude, really Rat made the room with her uncle, and when she does meet someone she trusts, like the two boys, she’s eager to include them.
Rat wasn’t a perfect role model. Her brand of feminism doesn’t foster much in the way of female friendship, or as she says, the other girls fear her because she’s a liberated woman. But Rat’s flaws only added to her corporeality and realness in my mind.
Rat made me comfortable with my interest in audio and Hi-Fi encouraged me to pursue it further. When I got my first job brewing coffee, I saved up my money for a turntable with a carbon fiber tonearm and acrylic platter. When I wanted to become a ham radio operator, I ignored the fact that I didn’t know anyone who did it, and thought of Rat, who went to the movies alone multiple nights a week. When I started radio DJing and got callers that offered external voice to the self-doubts that I heard inside, that my taste was too weird or my voice was too high, I did what Rat would do, and treated the control room as a soundproof room where I could drop the needle wherever I wanted, crank the volume, and hop around.
About the Author, Nan Pincus
Nan is a graduate of The University of North Carolina and Duke University. She writes about music culture and radio technology of all kinds. She DJs FM radio, operates ham radio, and got her first job in high school to save up for a belt-drive turntable. She works in classical music and theatre, but she often puts down her work to drop the needle on Scriabin’s Preludes and dream in technicolor.