Wednesday, December 17, 2014

See the USA in Your Chevrolet

"The answer is never the answer. What's really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you'll always be seeking."
-Ken Kesey

"There is nothing wrong with Americans except their ideals. The real American is all right; it is the ideal American who is all wrong."
-G K Chesterson

Poetically, nothing is perhaps more synonymous with America than the open road. Not counting the great Alaskan frontier, the contiguous 48 States is rather huge. That it was settled coast to coast within a century of the nation's founding is a testament to our collective restlessness. America is big: big people, portions, guns, budgets, ideas, lies, estates, dreams.  An easy glance at the political-economic spectrum reveals America as an Hegemonic Bully, making it tempting, if not convenient to write all of us off as big-ass dolts, and so toast good riddance to the passage of the American century. But even the most virulent anti-American propagandists would be disheartened to know that if they were to actually visit America, going deep by way of highway and byway, they might find Americans more complex than they thought possible and perhaps undeserving of our cruel stereotypes-- in fact, some visitors might find Americans rather likable and perhaps not so big in everything.


A baby boomer born into America's Golden Years, Timothy O'Grady, left for Ireland in 1973 at the age of 22 and never moved back. In 2003 and 2004 he does two cross country road trips in a rental pale beige Chevrolet. "But there's nothing between here and California but gas stations" some dude in a New York city bar exclaims to O'Grady at the outset of his journey. But as O'Grady describes his travels in his travelogue Divine Magnetic Lands, while homogenization has made America an uglier, less interesting place, geographical quirks persist still. This is one of those zen trips where it's all journey, destination an afterthought. Thus to enjoy the ride, he avoids interstate highways for country roads. Wherever he arrives, he goes drinking at bars, usually beer, with a game of billiards if there is a table. The bar does seem a good place for interviews, though surprisingly O' Grady learns "that in in the little bars in the little towns on the American road, particularly those where the grooming is haphazard, the language coarse, the prospects bleak and where it is believed that disputes both international and personal are best solved by violence, you are unlikely to get from the door to your chair without being engaged in conversation... but in cities and university towns, no matter how politically or spiritually open the prevailing ideology, you are likely to pass your evening in silence."

The wonderful thing about a road trip is that no two are exactly alike. Where you choose to stop is personal-- friends in propinquity, lingering nostalgia, or local cultural interests all play a part.  O'Grady's first trip takes him along the northern half, visiting a number of small towns including Ogden Dunes, Hibbing, Eagle Butts, Deadwood, Wallace, Medford, and Sausalito, then Big Sur, Monument Valley, Taos, Wichita Falls, Greenwood, Oxford, Sarasota, Edenton, among the many smaller towns during the second leg. Along the way he references other famous trippers on the American Road including Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, Simone de Bouvier, William Least Moon, Woody Guthrie, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Wherever he goes, he breaks down a bit of history: famous native sons, inventions, and often parables of civic decline. Most American towns have been dying since the 1970s, the main cause being de-industrialization, factories shuttering. Most ruminations lead inexorably to a discussion of American decline, and nearly everyone O'Grady meets on the road is feeling this some way or another. In New York City the author meets a researcher who has written a study on Americans' fascination with the apocalypse.  Here's O'Grady summing up the mess:

"This is the age, it would seem, through which America is passing, an Endtime of Empire-- a lack of belief in state structures, a decline in voting, an unreality in the unit of currency, enemies without and within, false accounting, vast numbers of servers accumulating around the rich, the ingratiation of the press to the powerful, the ascendancy of marketing over product, a retreat into privacy, reduced intellectual activity, a lack of public forums, a clouded future, religion based on salvation rather than good works, the infantilizing of adulthood, high anxiety, falling wages, casinos, crystals, angels, lotteries, private armies, seers, fanaticism."

The solution to nearly all these problems begins and ends with politics. O'Grady is a progressive and recognizes that deregulation and inequality are the primary causes of poverty, pessimism, and the decline of the middle class. He offers some advice for reform, all good and all to fall on deaf ears so long as our government continues to be bribed with graft and corrupted by K Street lobbying groups. O'Grady writes, "There is no people more easy to govern than the fearful, the debt-ridden and the demoralized. " Indeed, our current power structure thrives on the burdens of the many.

(c) Stephen Shore

The timing of the author's journey is important: 2003-2004 was the heart of the Bush era, an extraordinarily paranoid period wherein Bush, ostensibly, still had much of the country's support in spite of the developing catastrophes of the Iraq invasion (as a personal sidenote, 2003 is when I left the USA myself and eleven years later, have yet to move back). Traveling the US against this backdrop of fear and loathing will inevitably lead most seekers to dark conclusions. Nevertheless, for all his protestations, O'Grady is at heart, American, and thus optimistic. Interestingly, he connects the whiny victimization complex to conservatives and their "appeal to the sense of being abused, fed up, being ever on the losing side, in this country so focused on and celebratory of winning." Certainly if America ever hopes to be winning again, it will necessitate its reactionary minority to look beyond gay marriage, abortion rights, school prayer, and immigration fears to a politics that is more in tune with their livelihood. Like O'Grady I'm at heart an optimist and believe this is possible. But one day I might have to drive myself cross country and back just to make sure. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Japan Lost?

"To put it bluntly, these places have become cities of illusion, historical theme parks... Kyoto, Beijing, and Bangkok have been turned into concrete jungles. Meanwhile, the countryside has been filled to overflowing with billboards, power lines and aluminum houses."



A collection of essays concerning personal history and cultural critique, upon publication Lost Japan made Alex Kerr a legend in expat circles in Tokyo and elsewhere on the archipelago. A bit of a controversial figure for his harsh assessments of Japan, it is difficult to question his authority, as there are few foreign residents who have gone deeper into the culture than Kerr. He variously describes his interests delving into traditional Japanese architecture, kabuki theater, calligraphy, and art collecting. He seems to have experienced Japan at every level including a stint working for the Trammell Crow developing firm during the Bubble Era. Fluent in the language, Kerr originally wrote the book in Japanese.

Japan really is one of the most mythologized nations of which nearly everyone has an opinion. Many romanticize it, and it is easy to fall in love after a brief vacation. The streets are safe, the people polite, the shopkeepers honest, the service impeccable, the eccentricities charming. But any longterm residents- no matter the quality of their expatriate life- can enumerate various frustrations with the Japanese way of doing things. Kerr is an aesthete and his main point of contention is the Japanese willful destruction of their beautiful landscapes (pylons, power lines, concrete covering nature) atmosphere (interiors of plastic and florescent light), and the abandonment of the traditional arts (philistinism best typified by the rise of pachinko). Kerr might be a snob, but he is an agreeable and knowledgable one and his points are well thought out and colorfully made. His derision of pachinko, a mind-numbing electronic gambling game and its parlors for playing, is spot on: "When you look at the cultural remains of a historical period, you are able to perceive its dominant ideology. In the Nara and Heian periods there were Esoteric temples; from Kamakura to Edo there were Zen temples and teahouses... What about the present?... In the Japanese countryside the tallest and most ostentatious building is invariably a pachinko parlor." 

Hitchhiking across Japan in the early 1970s, he discovered the Iya Valley in rural Shikoku, where in a little village suffering depopulation he purchases an abandoned 17th century wooden house. The most expensive and complicated renovation is replacing the kaya, or thatched roof. It takes years for him to do so but in the end the structure is beautifully restored. He calls it Chiiori and it becomes a success story for restorative village tourism. Nevertheless, in spite of a longterm recession and a history of failure, a corrupt national government continues to spend massively on pork barrel projects that despoil the environment.  

Kerr comments wearily, "This destruction has continued at an ever-increasing rate, and now Japan has achieved a position as one of the world's ugliest countries." However brusque Kerr's criticism is, the fury derives from a profound love for his adopted country. Wherever we choose to live, we will have a complex relationship to our environment, most especially if we import our values into a distinct culture. For all of Kerr's criticism, he is lavish when describing his fondness for calligraphy and kabuki not to mention, his gratitude for the genuine friendships he's maintained with certain Japanese people.


But for all Kerr's lamentations of a bygone Japan, I couldn't help noticing there was a tinge of the traveler's boast-- what I'm talking about is the one-upmanship people have when comparing their life experiences. No doubt Kerr has had an extraordinarily unique go at it, but the underlying message here for those coming to the party late seems to be "forget it!" as he was the last foreigner to experience the "real" Japan. Kerr is far too delicate to come out and say this explicitly-- however, over and over, he brings up cultural topics that have changed irreparably, from art collecting to kabuki to the rural village experience. Even something as culturally vulgar as Japan's economic Bubble is burst and the gold rush is over. Kerr's not exactly rubbing it in, but this memoir is an elegy for a "lost Japan," and let's not forget who wrote it.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Living Metaphor as Bravado vs. Conscientiousness

"Billy, all those mofos ever do is lie. You think if they halfway told the truth we'd even be in a fucking war? You know what I think, I think we don't deserve to have you guys die for us. No country that lets its leaders lie like that deserves a single soldier to die for it."



The relative value of a good war in American life has declined markedly over the past several generations. Almost nobody uninvolved cared much about the stalemate in Korea and Vietnam was very bad. In our time, Iraq and Afghanistan have been pretty disgraceful, nothing like the (ahem) "good" wars from which we build our myths and fine tune our legends. With such villainous opponents like slaveowners and Nazis, it's possible to romanticize the trenches of Gettysburg and the carnage of Normandy, especially against the patina of bygone decades. Perhaps one hundred years now some fabulist will find something noble in our most contemporary self-made disasters, but for now, the stories depicting the bungling of Baghdad are of a more critical nature.

Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is one of the best war novels I've ever read, with the interesting distinction of being entirely set in Dallas, Texas, on Thanksgiving Day. It's about the eight surviving members of Bravo Squad being feted by the media after FOX News broadcasts a tape of them in a death-defying firefight known as "the battle of Al-Ansakar Canal," turning them into nationwide heroes. Their goodwill tour culminates in Dallas for the Turkey bowl, the traditional Thanksgiving football match featuring the Dallas Cowboys.

The story takes place over a single day, but as days go it is more eventful than any you've probably ever had in your entire life. We follow closely Billy Lynn, a good kid from a normal family, who through some bad shit butterfly effect winds up in some trouble, enlisting in the military in order to avoid penitentiary time. Billy is a calm presence in Bravo Squad, a rowdy bunch, hard-drinking, hard talking, who have survived some intense battlefield moments. Everywhere they go, average, inarticulate, overweight, generally ignorant citizens approach them with trite mumbo jumbo: "terrRist... freedom...evil... nina leven...nina leven... nina leven...troops... currj...support... sacrifice... Bush...values... God." Meanwhile, the boys just want to bang some Cowboys cheerleaders and be left in some degree of peace. Albert, a charismatic blackberry-wielding Hollywood producer with big-league cred tags along, trying to secure a moneyed investor to make a movie about Bravo Company.

The soldiers, hungover from a strip club outing the night before, are passed along to numerous factotums before the halftime show. Pregame, they meet the Cowboys in the locker room, hulking, buff superhuman freaks, and there is a mutual respect regarding ferociousness and the kill instinct. They watch the first quarter from the luxury box with Dallas's blue blood. The grunts are mostly impressed with such ostentatious success, but for all their moneyed opulence, the jetsetters don't have combat experience and are thus too are somewhat taken by Billy and the others' survivor cachet. In a conversation with one millionaire, Billy is reminded that people "can take pleasure in the achievement, even feel some measure of participatory pride, all the while understanding that the mission has absolutely nothing to do with him." But getting down to brass tacks, the public's feel-good patriotism ("wore on terrRr... we pray and hope and bless and praise...proud, so proud) is artifice, a mendacious concept of success and bravery, only tangentially connected to them by way of being American too. It is in this spirit that Bravo Company is marched out on national TV for the halftime show with Bush-era pop superstars Destiny's Child performing. Such a show based on flimsy associations then becomes a hideous farce and a surreal nightmare.

After two weeks of numerous TV interviews and a visit to his Texas family, Billy will be redeployed to Iraq following the game. His sister, Kathryn, who is indirectly responsible for his enlistment status, has found him a lawyer who will put him into hiding if he goes AWOL. She and this antiwar group she's in contact with are looking to utilize Billy's heroism to condemn involvement in Iraq and American militarism in general. Here could be the brave face of a movement that might sway public opinion decidedly against our military misadventures. Besides the movie deal and a love interest of Billy's (he has a hot hookup with a Cowboys cheerleader named Faison), Billy's move on whether or not to leave his friends at Bravo becomes the climax of the story. Billy is reluctant, which frustrates Kathryn: "Only a nut would want to go back to the war. We'll have the lawyers plead temporary sanity for you, how about that? You're too sane to go back to the war, Billy Lynn has come to his senses. It's the rest of the country that's nuts for wanting to send him back." But it's not quite simple: besides the obvious betrayal of his Bravo companions, there is the element of evolving into yet another pawn, at once transitioning from a symbol of American gung ho pluck to conscientious objector "coward." Being a symbol to the American public would wear anyone out, but to go from one kind of face to another might be too much.

(c) Spencer Platt

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a great war novel, in that war is hardly confined to the battlefield. The soldiers lucky enough to survive become veterans and the experience manifests itself in their civilian lives. It reminds me then of a great movie from 1978, Coming Home, none of which takes place in Vietnam's jungles or Saigon's boulevards, but which is a great war film nonetheless, because when we talk about war, we have to consider the totality of it. At the moment, Fountain's novel is in the process of being developed into a film to be directed by Ang Lee. I won't spoil your reading experience telling whether Albert lands Bravo Company their movie deal-- but I will say that I'm sad to see Billy and the other grunts getting the big screen treatment in our world. I can get the allure-- likable characters, cracking dialogue, the psychedelic hyper-reality of football halftime shows, and a moral crisis-- but film adaptations tend to spoil the best books, divulging everything while revealing nothing. Read this now.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Jungle Book

"Keep your money. You can print money, but you can't print land. We want our land."
--Penan tribesmen in Central Borneo in response to local government bribes


The travel writer Eric Hansen's memoir, Stranger in the Forest, an account of his 1982 peregrinations on the island of Borneo, is like an elegy to a form of travel, and more importantly, a way of existence, that in the course of my lifetime, has not quite ceased to exist but has changed irreparably and for the worse. Hansen spent about seven months crisscrossing the jungles of Borneo, about 4000km in distance, two thirds of it on foot, a lot of the walking through pristine rain forest. He could not do it by himself (it turns out no one in Borneo wanders alone in the jungle due to fear of evil spirits, or just as troublesome, accusations of being an evil spirit, which happened to Hansen at one unlucky juncture); that he traveled most of the way with guides does not diminish the accomplishment. Hansen put his life in the hands of the hill people of the Penan tribe. Already by the time of Hansen's publication of the novel in 1988, the local government of Sarawak had granted massive concessions to timber companies, justifying their exploitation of indigenous land on the grounds that Penan hunters did not know how to utilize resources.  Hansen's "walk" then, was not just the first but the last of its kind really possible before contemporary globalization-- taking off in the 1980s-- would mean full-speed expansion of corporate penetration into virgin forests.

Hansen's ambitions to walk across Borneo are more fantasy than reality, and inadequate planning leads him into making numerous false starts, his endeavors sabotaged by duplicitous guides, the bearing of inadequate trade items, and an ankle injury. These setbacks aren't necessarily a waste of time, as gifted with language ability (or maybe by virtue of studious efforts), he develops decent Malay fluency and locates the right people to advise him on routes, and more importantly, which trade items to bring. An experienced merchant tutors him on tables of local trade item value and encourages him to consider profit-to-size-and-weight ratios (shotgun shells being small and portable and having excellent barter value, he picks up 250 rounds, along with four kilos of beads and two kilos of tobacco).

Hansen finally finds the right guides and plunges deep into the forest, so much so that he doesn't see the sun for four weeks. They carry no more food than they need for a couple days, hunting the rest, feeding on bats, snakes, and pig (Hansen demonstrates time and again a remarkably adventurous palate).  The jungle, so mysterious, foreboding, and inexplicable to novice trekkers, is a revelation of bounty and utilitarian things: "A piece of thin bark placed between two small river rocks became a drinking fountain; a leaf plucked off a certain tree, folded double, and sucked on to create a vibrating sound, would call the inquisitive barking deer to within shotgun range; a vine known as kulit elang, when pounded and dipped in water and scrubbed on our ankles, would keep leeches from climbing up our legs."

The heterogeneity of Borneo's arboreal life is incredible: "The diversity of tree species alone is estimated at a staggering 2500. In one ten-hectare sample plot of Borneo jungle, the Royal Geographical Society has identified nearly 800 species of trees, more than 20 times the total number of native tree species in all of Britain." They go weeks without seeing any other people, living off the spoils of the jungle. What they do not eat or smoke quickly putrefies and is recycled into the forest floor. Hansen concludes, "the rain forest was a living, breathing organism capable of consuming and digesting me was disconcerting, but also rather exciting. It made me feel as if we were traveling through the intestinal flora of some giant leafy creature."

There is a long learning curve for Hansen but he gets it: "I became blissfully preoccupied with the present tense. It was at about this time I finally came to accept the fact that the rain forest was not a chaotic wilderness to be battled and conquered. There was nothing to conquer, and the chaos was entirely due to my inexperience." There is no straight line in the jungle. His guides do not lead him in the most direct route. They cannot tell him how long the journey will take-- it all depends on how good the hunting is along the way. Eventually Hansen sheds "my Western concepts of time, comfort, and privacy. When I first entered the jungle and let go of my margins of safety to become vulnerable to a place I didn't understand, it was terrifying. I had slowly learned, however, to live with the fear and uncertainty. Also I realized that the physical journey was not the great accomplishment. The value of the trip lay in everyday encounters, and the destination gradually became a by-product of the journey."

This conclusion would make sense as Hansen is walking in the jungle for the pure thrill of being there. His style of travel is full immersion-- not only does he learn Malay, but he befriends his guides and villagers, drinks arak and enjoys their exotic food, participates in their dance ceremonies, follows their customs. Many times he makes a fool of himself, but by doing so he builds trust. He adapts to their sense of time and belief system-- very superstitious by Western standards-- and conducts himself with patience, grace, and respect.  Comparisons are inevitable and I can't help thinking of Paul Theroux, a wonderful writer, but one who seems always on the move, resistant to adaptation, and a hell of a lot grumpier and meaner in terms of value judgments. From Hansen you get the sense of an egalitarian idealism-- he's a true humanist: empathetic and compassionate, a lover. His writing is descriptive and thorough, and he tells a good story-- there will be many when you spend seven months in virgin forest speaking a new tongue, learning to hunt, going weeks without sunlight under the cover of enormous jungle canopies. 


Penan hill people (c) Eric Hansen

However good he is describing his adventures, this book is as much amateur anthropology as it is travel memoir (and that is not meant to be a criticism). We've come so very far with technology; so few of us know how to live off the land as our distant ancestors did. It is wonderful to know that in my lifetime tribesmen like the Penan can still live off the forests, but it is a tragedy to learn their way of life is highly endangered. We can only hope that Eric Hansen's childhood dream of jungle adventure-- manifested in this book-- has raised awareness of this David & Goliath situation.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Old Man and His Prejudices

"To be human was to be severed, mutilated. Man is incomplete. Zeus is a tyrant. Mount Olympus is a tyranny. The work of humankind in its severed state is to seek the missing half. And after so many generations your true counterpart is simply not to be found. Eros is a compensation granted by Zeus-- for possibly political reasons for his own. And the quest for your lost half is hopeless. The sexual embrace gives temporary self-forgetting but the painful knowledge of mutilation is permanent."



It had been a long time since I read my favorite Saul Bellow novels-- more than a decade in fact, since I'd loved Herzog, Mister Sammler's Planet, and Henderson and the Rain King-- but the excerpt above from his last novel, Ravelstein, reminded me why I'd once adored Bellow as a young man, conscious that love and sex could be entirely distinct pathos. His novels' heroes were so smart yet so troubled-- they compensated for their abysmal marriages with thoughtful narratives of love won and lost, though usually burning themselves out putting the question of love and sex on the fire too long to stand the heat. Every great novelist, no matter how many books he or she writes, has a certain, indisputable vibe and this was Bellow's: great intellectual men sundered by overanalyzed collapsing love affairs.

This is not the case of Bellow's last novel published before his death. There are elements of it, of course, but Ravelstein is some strange fictional hagiography to a gay celebrity academic (apparently modeled on Allan Bloom, a University of Chicago professor of philosophy). The narrator is Chick, an old friend of Ravelstein's, entrusted to write a biography of the man, focused on his rather unconventional life rather than his theories. Liking such a literary love letter then depends entirely on liking Ravelstein, an economic neoliberal polymath genius, but also a Francophile snob, a materialistic bon vivant, and a hypocrite, who for all his wealth of intelligence comes off as a distasteful boor rather than someone whose life we should admire.

Consider the superficiality of this: "Ravelstein had come to agree that it was important to note how people looked. Their ideas are not enough-- their theoretical convictions and political views. If you don't take into account their haircuts, the hang of their pants, their taste in skirts and blouses, their style of driving a car or eating a dinner, your knowledge is incomplete." Not only does he pass judgments on the basis of such elitist notions, there is the problem of the old coot being a tad sexist: "Nature, furthermore, gave women a longing for children, and therefore for marriage, for the stability requisite for family life. And this, together with a mass of other things, disabled them for philosophy." And for the hat trick he is a bit of a starfucker as well: "At Idlewild, once, he had spotted Elizabeth Taylor and for the better part of an hour tracked her through the crowds. It especially pleased him to have recognized her." How perfectly ordinary of you, Mr. Ravelstein!

And Ravelstein being a decrepit snob with untouchable credentials and experience must unduly disparage his contemporaries and the liberal arts scene: "No real education was possible in American universities except for aeronautical engineers, computerists, and the like. The universities were excellent in biology and the physical sciences, but the liberal arts were a failure." This is partially true-- no question that the American government and educational institutions find engineering, mathematics, and science a more lucrative investment than poetry or history, but it is a rather harsh and uncompromising generalization to label the arts "a failure" but this is the sort of personality Bellow built a novel around: an awful, judgmental personage that whom for all his dying, is never sympathetic.


Ravelstein was published in 2000 when Saul Bellow was 85 years old. The reviews for it are laudatory. Bellow was such a wonderful writer and, even here, his prose is never trite and often lyrical. But its subject is often trite and never lyrical and leaves me at a loss that Bellow-- who at that age had probably witnessed many, many friends pass on-- would choose to focus his last efforts on a personality who did not deserve his gorgeous gifts. So sad to see the swan song become an ugly duckling.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

This American Life

"...and they walked hand in hand through the softness and he gave her a rose and she laid it across her hand like a scepter and gently raised it to her lips and its fragrance was enchantment and she smiled the smile of a rose, so soft, delicate, so lovely and the Bird was there oncemore, blowing, and she placed the rose on its satin cushion and let the robes slip from her body--Whatta yadoin?-- and they folded softly at her feet-- ya just gonna suckit."



The excerpt above exemplifies Hubert Selby Jr.'s prose style in his novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn: it veers from ethereal beauty to crude, ugly, physical excess, the effect of which is like imagining a young nymph's face smirched with a black eye, a fat lip, and two broken teeth. Scandalizing readers since 1964, the novel is divided into six stories with some recurring characters and places. The stories are not woven together by narrative but with an undercurrent of violence, brutal, horrible violence that is often terrible to imagine. There is no parental guidance rating system for novels, but if there were one, Last Exit would surely rate XXX-- if you were to read it at the wrong juncture in your life in an unhappy condition, it might conclusively plunge you into a very dark place of existential woe.

Consider the first story, "Another Day Another Dollar" in which two black army soldiers are jumped by the local gang of toughs outside a Brooklyn diner called The Greeks: "the blood in his mouth gurgled as he tried to scream, rolled down his chin then spumed forth as he vomited violently and someone stomped his face into the pool of vomit and the blood whirled slightly in arcs and a few bubbles gurgled in the puke as he panted and gasped and their shoes thudded into the shiteatinbastards kidneys..." And so on and so forth until the soldier is beaten beyond recognition. This isn't an altercation or a fight so much as it is a massacre, notably white on black.  One will notice Selby's writing style is similar to his contemporary, Jack Kerouac: run on sentences and criminal punctuation generated by a stream-of-conscious writing method, signifying an express lane from the writer's unconscious to the page. Selby's stories puts the controversy over On the Road and the Beats in context-- their Buddhism, pacifism and anti-materialism was more or less harmless to mainstream America. Selby's stories reveal to us the American way of life minus any philosophical or artistic meaning-- the violent, terrible id, the one engineered the theft of native peoples' land and justified slavery under the barrel of the gun. The characters in Last Exit are monsters without puritanical pretensions; their psychotic impulse is nearly unchecked, their agenda wholly corporeal and materialistic.

The most outrageous story is "Tralala," the title character a fifteen-year-old girl, proud of her breast size, which she utilizes to seduce sailors and traveling salesmen, and then, when they are sexually spent, she bludgeons them unconscious so that she might steal their wallets. It's an ugly life that is going nowhere and the story fast-forwards into the future, with Tralala still pushing her chest out as her last asset, no longer young, still pulling the same stunts, whooping it up in a bar:

"Tralala pulled her sweater up and bounced her tits on the palms of her hands and grinned and grinned and grinned and Jack and Fred whooped and roared and the bartender told her to put those goddamn things away and get thehelloutahere and Ruthy and Annie winked and Tralala slowly turned around bouncing them hard on her hands exhibiting her pride to the bar and she smiled and bounced the biggest most beautiful pair of tits in the world on her hands and someone yelled is that for real and Tralala shoved them in his face and everyone laughed and another glass fell from a table and guys stood and looked and the hands came out from under the skirt and beer was poured on Tralalas tits and someone yelled that she had been christened and the beer ran down her stomach and dripped from her nipples and she slapped his face with her tits and someone yelled youll smotherim to death-- what a way to die..."

Tralala's karma, never good, nevertheless does not deserve the comeuppance that happens later that afternoon, in which she is gang-raped by nearly everyone in the bar in the back of an abandoned car. The scene is described in lavish detail. Her unconscious body, left to simmer in the expunged fluids of dozens, is then desecrated by neighborhood children. No one ever calls for help or thinks this is wrong or sad. In the violence perpetrated by the children, Selby suggests that evil is our natural instinct. Or at the very least, society is so compromised that children are as monstrous as their uncles.

Hubert Selby, Jr in a gentler moment

There are no winners in the novel-- only losers, outcasts, and ne'erdowells. Family life is a joke, an abomination. The transvestite, Georgette, in "The Queen Is Dead" is a horror to her mother; in "Strike," Harry, a self-righteous blowhard who gets temporary status when his union goes on strike against the factory, is not a sensitive lover to his wife ("Harry shoved and pounded as hard as he could, wanting to drive the fucking thing out of the top of her head."); and in "Landsend" the fathers in the housing project are deadbeat dads, one and all, jobless, philandering, inattentive, lazy, and alcoholic. No redemption is possible when life is not examined. Living is day-by-day, whatever cash scrounged up, tucked away in a front pocket, nursing a hard-on and a bad attitude. Immersing yourself in these people's lives for 304 pages is to feel a bit dirty in aftermath. Selby might be a provocateur, an alarmist, or just tapping his own ferocious id-- whatever the reasons for him composing this wonderfully terrible novel I cannot begin to fathom. But he writes in a distinct signature style and does it very well. Take the ride, reader, but do so knowing it's going to be a stormy journey.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

In the Gene Pool

“Accidents which happen to a man before he is born, in the persons of his ancestors, will, if he remembers them at all, leave an indelible impression on him; they will have molded his character so that, do what he will, it is hardly possible for him to escape their consequences.”



Samuel Butler's semi-autobiographical novel, The Way of All Flesh, covers four generations of Pontifex men. The forefather "Old" John Pontifex is a village carpenter; his only son, George, a big city publisher and first-class "prig;" George's second son, Theobald, is a miserly village rector; finally Theobald's eldest son, Ernest, is a bit of a lost soul due his father's dictatorial parenting: at first a scholar and clergyman like Theobald, he cannot articulate reasons for loving or even believing in God. He gets into trouble and is sent to prison. An apostate when released into society, he leaves the Church of England and his parents' shadow forever. He finds a trade as a tailor but struggles with an alcoholic wife. At this time, his only outlet for pleasure is his love of Handel's music and scribbled intellectual musings. After so much failure, he comes into a large inheritance, adopts Darwin as a guiding light, and writes a series of book treatises that the public mostly ignores, but with wealth and self-realization, Ernest remains finally happy all the same.

Our narrator, Mr. Overton, is Ernest's godfather. He is an English gentleman, meaning he is independently wealthy, runs in high society, and the quotidian problems of the hoi polloi are not his concern. He writes for the theater and lives a bohemian lifestyle. He has an active interest in Ernest's welfare and is the caretaker of the wealthy estate left to Ernest by his aunt. Overton doesn't like Theobald, and neither do we, as he is a bit of a manipulative monster. As the title suggests, the novel is about how difficult it is to break free from the stranglehold of family. The mistakes of our ancestors, the rage and sense of inferiority are embedded in our DNA. We might hate where we come from but we are not so dissimilar in temperament and life outlook. 

Ernest's avidness as a do-right clergyman (along with a fellow London curate, Prior, he seeks to found a "College of Spiritual Pathology") is not a handpicked life. He is following his father's footsteps and in a burgeoning adult intelligence realizes that he is not only not good at offering spiritual comfort but that he cannot exactly rationalize God's existence in the first place. “By faith in what, then shall a just man endeavor to live at this present time? At any rate not by faith in the supernatural element of the Christian religion.” Leaving the Church of England is rejecting his parents' piety as much as it is abandoning God. Being free-thinking is not just a secular thing, but also a declaration of independence: Ernest looked "back upon this as the time when he began to know that he had a cordial and active dislike for both his parents, which I suppose means that he was now beginning to be aware that he was reaching man's estate.”

Ernest's departure from religion to philosophy reminds me quite a bit of James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus in The Portrait of the Young Artist As a Young Man, substituting Catholicism for the Church of England (Joyce's narrative owes some considerable debt to Samuel Butler, who got here first and seems that for most critics this debt remains unacknowledged). Ernest is something of a fool and a sucker, buying into various ideas and schemes with a fanatic's enthusiasm, only to be ruined when truth (or reality) destroy the fantasy. Like many literary heroes he is something of a loser who must live and learn that it was  “...impossible to reduce life to an exact science. There was a rough-and-ready, rule-of-thumb test of truth, and a number of rules as regards exceptions which could be mastered without much trouble, yet there was a residue of cases in which decision was difficult-- so difficult that a man had better follow his instinct than attempt to decide them by any process of reasoning.”

Samuel Butler-- The Way of All Flesh,
 due its autobiographical nature, was published posthumously 

It is a wonderful pleasure to read about fuck-ups, but there is one keen problem with Butler's novel: it is something of a deus ex machina, in that for all his wrong turns, Ernest is still an entitled aristocrat, though one slow in coming. His problems are solved for him, rather than him wising up to the ways of the world, or finding happiness without money. There is thus no drama to the novel, since the reader knows quite early that Ernest is to inherit a great sum (we know even if Ernest himself does not). And while he might reject his parents' conditional love, he is far from an ideal father himself. We follow his journey for almost 400 pages, and for what? To see him evolve into a pompous essayist? Is he then just a variation of his overbearing father, the way of all flesh? At the end, the self-confident, ultimately well-adjusted Ernest is far less likable than the impressionable naive young man: “I will live as I like living, not as other people would like me to live; thanks to my aunt and you, I can afford the luxury of a quiet, unobtrusive life of self-indulgence.” This might be the end-all for someone of Butler's taste, but definitely not welcomed words of any hero of my own.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Dropping Out Means You Need a Plan Too


"Outside, at the main gate to the Drop City ranch, there was a plywood sign nailed clumsily to the wooden crossbars: NO MEN, NO WOMEN-- ONLY CHILDREN."

"All the communities he'd been a part of, or tried to be a part of, had fallen to pieces under the pressure of the little things, the essentials, the cooking and the cleaning and the repairs, and while it was nice to think everybody would pitch in during a crisis, it didn't always work out that way."


Beyond Haight-Ashbury is there a greater physical space symbol of 1960s counterculture than the hippie commune? A place in the country, back to the land, grow your own food, no Mr. Jones looking over your shoulder with his taxes and laws and bourgeois habits and what's that you're smoking, man, pass it along this way, you hear? And that was what did in nearly all the utopian experiments of the Aquarius Hair era: loafers, parasites, and dropouts not doing their share of the work while enjoying a disproportionate share of the sex and drugs. Living off the land and thus outside the realm of The Man is a romantic idea, Thoroueu-ian American, but self-sufficiency doesn't come easy. And what begins as egalitarianism collapses often enough into hierarchy with all the social pressures and personality conflicts so redolent of the outside world. This might be inevitable whenever human beings try to assemble a new social organization, no matter how noble their original intentions. An autonomous society where everyone is equal and which also values individualism and hedonism is going to have a rough go at it. "This time it'll be different," is one of the great lies we tell ourselves.

T. C. Boyle's novel, Drop City, about a 1970 California hippie commune in trouble with the law and relocating to Alaska's wild frontier is one part adventure yarn/ one part anthropological fiction/ one part human comedy. Of the many dropouts who make up the Drop City roster, there are four principle characters, each one representing a paradigm of communal life. Norm, a chunky dude in overalls and body hair is the guru, the Big Daddy, whose inheritance and money make Drop City a reality. His charisma keeps spirits high and hopeful, but he is not necessarily competent nor sensible. Pan (or Ronnie as he was known in the straight world) abandoned the suburbs to reinvent himself as a stoned sexual primitive in beads and hair, who would much rather get high, screw, and lay in the sun than dig septic fields for overflowing latrines. Marco is a bit of a drifter, in trouble with The Law for burning his draft card-- he can't go home, not with an arrest warrant in his name. More than anyone else Marco wants Drop City to make it; he indulges in the hippie rhetoric and aesthetic but his puritan work habits makes him a vital member of the Drop City community. He is also monogamous with Star, a flower child with a "million-kilowatt smile" who, along with the other "chicks" bear the soul of the community; the women doing most of the cooking and cleaning while some of the men work and others lounge. Originally, she came out west with Pan, but like many of the other girls of the community, she got fed up with free love and accusations of "bourgeois hangups" when refusing to indulge in sexual demands: "Free love was just an invention of some cat with pimples and terminally bad hair and maybe crossed eyes who couldn't get laid any other way..."

The novel begins in the commune, high summer. Work progresses slowly in the California sun (as Ronnie says, "he didn't come all the way out here to dig sewers." Tourists and weekenders come by to participate (i.e. get high, get laid) or gawk as they would at a circus. Some "cats" taking a too liberal interpretation of sixties sexual politics rape a runaway and there is some dissension about what to do, as Norm has an open door policy called "LATWIDNO, Land Access to Which Is Denied No One." Shortly thereafter, things come to a head on Druid Day, better known in the straight world as Summer Solstice, in which Drop City indulges the longest day of the year with pitchers of LSD-laced orange juice for communal tripping. That day both of the commune's young children, Che and Sunshine, also dosing, are almost killed in drowning incidents. Moreover, Norm totals the VW bus in an accident involving the community's stray mare and two other vehicles. He flees the scene (he is tripping after all and this is heavy, man, dig?) and an arrest warrant is issued. Worse, the county authorities licking its lips over numerous safety code violations and unpaid debts finally have the catalyst it needs to call in the bulldozers and raze the commune once and for all. But Norm has an uncle who'd recently retired from Alaskan trapping and has abandoned a working cabin and land no one is using.  "Are you fucking crazy?" Star wants to know, speaking on behalf of nearly every concerned hippie. Norm, who spent a few sentimental summers in Alaska twenty years past, responds with a confident huckster's speech worth quoting in full:

"...The cabin is ours, people, fully stocked and ready to go, traps, guns, snowshoes, six cords of wood stacked up outside the door, pots and pans and homemade furniture and all the rest, and it's going to be an adventure, it is. We're going to take down some trees, because that's the way you do it-- lumber is free up there, can you dig that, free-- and we're going to build four more cabins and a meeting house and we're going to build right on down to the river because the salmon are running up that river even as we speak and they're running in the millions. You dig smoked salmon? Anybody here dig smoked salmon? And the blueberries. The cranberries. You never saw anything like it. You want to know what we're going to eat? We're going to eat the land because it's one big smorgasbord. And there's nobody-- I mean nobody-- to stop us."

When? Where? How?  But logistics can wait-- it is Druid Day after all, and Norm leads the hippies dancing around a wild bonfire. Within a few days Norm has purchased an old school bus (a la Ken Kesey), and over the ensuing days, the bus is outfitted for the long trip (supplies and provisions packed, most especially Drop City's rock and roll record collection and the house speakers). Within a week they are gone, on their way up through Canada and most of Alaska to the very frontier, beyond civilization altogether, to establish Drop City North.

T. C. Boyle

Before the hippies arrive, Boyle has set up a parallel storyline in Boynton, the last town on the road. Most of the inhabitants are "coots"-- anti-social survivalists, almost universally male. Cecil "Sess" Harder is not as wealthy as some of the others who are involved in exploitation of the land and misery (either in resources or tourism or the running of contraband). Sess grows his own herbs and vegetables, hunts moose and bear with his rifle, and runs an extensive trapline with his dogs. Entirely self-sufficient, constitutionally and psychologically he's well-built and adaptable for Alaska's long, dark winter, but would prefer having someone to share the cabin with. After a disastrous relationship in which his last girl left him with severe cabin fever, he discovers Pamela in the classifieds. She wants out of society with its druggies and crimes and governmental overreach. She's beautiful, blonde locks and blue eyes, and a hard worker and Sess really is lucky when she chooses to marry him. Sess and Pamela live in a cabin out by the river called the Thirtymile-- but often go into Boynton or beyond for supply runs or a bit of "civilization." The only problem in his life is Joe Bosky, a psychotic asshole rich from running whiskey crates to alcoholic Eskimos. Their vendetta is brutal, the stakes growing more vicious with each retaliation.

Into this sleepy community, the hippie bus pulls in with its rock and roll, its groovy argot and its birthright naivety. The bus breaks down for the umpteenth time just a couple miles outside Boynton. Fixing it they meet Sess and Pamela walking up the road and they go into town together to the Three Pup, the local drunks' watering hole. Soon as they arrive, Sess knocks the weepy honky tonk ballad off the needle and chooses three plays of Van Morrison's Mystic Eyes. Flabbergasting the local rustics, "the hippies had caught on and kept feeding the jukebox quarters and the only song they played-- the song of the night, the anthem-- was Mystic Eyes. It was a joke. Hilarious. Fifteen times, twenty, twenty-five. They danced and pounded and threw back beers and shots of peppermint schnapps and whatever else they could lay their hands on. All was movement and noise and the swirling interleaved colors of the dancers' shirts and jackets and the flapping wind-propelled cuffs of their pants."

Hippies

On the road, Norm, slumped over the school bus wheel, pops some uppers and points out some trees leaning willy nilly, "the drunken forest... What happens is the trees can't put down their roots more than maybe twenty-four inches or whatever and then the wind comes along and gives them a shove. And don't think there's anything wrong with them. They're alive and thriving. It's just that they're never going to grow straight. Or much."  Is there a better description of the hippie drifter? Soaking up a scene and then bailing when the vibes go bad? Half the season is over by the time Drop City North chops down its first tree. It's too late for the growing season and hunting and skinning a moose, laying traps, and building log cabins is not exactly an intuitive knowledge, not anymore at least in our consumeristic society. The pleasure of Boyle's novel is wondering whether Drop City will make it to the winter, and if so, how the hell it will deal with its noon-time moon and 40-below nights. The barriers are not only physical or mechanical, but psychological and spiritual as well. How that plays out with a clan of dropouts who never saw themselves in the Alaskan wilderness in the first place is the sort of vicarious thrill that inspires the thrill of reading in the first place.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Matter of Lying


“Always in this region at about this time they began to speak the truth at each other. The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human being-- it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.”



No writer of the twentieth century quite mastered the heartbreak of married old men in love with younger women in wartime frontier posts like Graham Greene did. The Quiet American is more famous (due the fact it too is excellent, it was made into a decent movie in 2002, and that it is the first novel about the Vietnam War), but The Heart of the Matter-- a surprisingly tense, bitter telling of a policeman, Major Scobie, an honest do-right old-school type in a loveless marriage delving into lies in order to pursue a relationship that brings him some happiness in some godforsaken colonial town in the middle of World War II-- might be the best written book of Greene's wonderful oeuvre.

Scobie is married to Louise, a high-strung devotedly Catholic bibliophile who doesn't do idle talk well and is a bit of a pariah among plain-spoken bureaucratic types.  When the Europeans gather for gossip and spirits, she is distinctly uncomfortable and nearly always unhappy. However, a recent arrival on the lethargic colonial scene, Wilson, has a secret love of poetry and falls in love with her; so much so he is openly contemptuous of Scobie, whom he might be spying on and reporting for transgressions. Louise isn't quite flattered by Wilson's clumsy amorous declarations and pushes her husband to find some means to get her on a boat out of the colony, preferably to Cape Town, South Africa where she has friends (England being too dangerous to return to during the war).

A dated photo of Freetown, Sierra Leone, 
where Greene admitted to being the setting of The Heart of the Matter

Scobie, a by-the-books honest cop who never learned how to accept the appropriate bribe resorts to a loan from Yusuf, a Syrian trader with a bad rep in town and who may or may not be smuggling diamonds. The loan is straightforward and legal, and Yusuf is unfailingly polite and friendly, but to be on any kind of business terms with Yusuf, especially for a police officer, is suspicious. But with the loan, Scobie is able to send Louise away. Her emotional instability no longer a living tension, Scobie, while in debt, looks forward to a relatively uncomplicated life.

However, there is a ferry accident up the river. One of the survivors, a Mrs. Helen Rolt, newly widowed and too traumatized to make the long return to England stays on in the town and the rapport she has with Scobie, a man twenty years her senior, develops into a clandestine love affair. Scobie promises to see to her needs devotedly, only to have Louise return early to the colony complicating his life, as is his business with Yusuf until the policeman's moral character is stretched to a breaking point.

By the end of WWII, it had become difficult to rationalize the existence of the Christian God, for what kind of Omnipotent Force would have permitted the outrageous atrocities overwhelming the world throughout the 20th century? Like Ingmar Bergman's doubting priests and spiritually fraught christian knights, Greene's heroes are often men who know all the words of the Lord's Prayers, but who have lost all faith in their meanings. Godless and isolated thus, Scobie has his own moral playbook, but the pages are torn out one by one in an enveloping complex of lies.  In his futile attempt to please everyone and compartmentalize his feelings, Scobie becomes completely unmoored and his nervous breakdown has a palpable sense of doom.

The author, Graham Greene, 
around the time of the publication of The Heart of the Matter

There are few novels that capture the painful tedium of loving your partner without being the least bit in love as The Heart of the Matter does. A loveless marriage is a horrible thing to bear and Greene brings an immediacy to the day-to-day walking-on-eggshells hopelessness: “People talk about the courage of condemned men walking to the place of execution: sometimes it needs as much courage to walk with any kind of bearing towards another person's habitual misery.” It is lies that unravel Scobie, but he'd long inured himself to reality, forced pleasantries with his wife, whom he wholly pitied and loved not at all. Our hero is a noble failure, but there is a bit of him in all of us, trying for goodness even when exhausted, even when it would be so easy to just give up and move on. "No man is an island," the poet John Donne famously writes, but then Greene writes, less romantically, but perhaps more truthfully, “When he was young, he had thought love had something to do with understanding, but with age he knew that no human being understood another. Love was the wish to understand, and presently with constant failure the wish died too perhaps or changed into this painful affection, loyalty, pity...”

Devastating, isn't it?

Friday, September 19, 2014

Ginsberg Guru


“And I will worship him by eating bananas!”

--Allen Ginsberg



You would have thought that the guy that wrote the legendary poem Howl (“I saw the best minds of my generation...”) and who (along with Jack Kerouac) personified what was perhaps the most important cultural movement in 1950s America would have felt some satisfaction in a life well lived. But Allen Ginsberg, Beatnik genius, was a mess of confusion and anxiety when JFK's New Frontier era began. A born traveler, though always a poet of limited means, Ginsberg's insatiable curiosity for life would take him across the world. Deborah Baker's A Blue Hand is the wonderful story of Ginsberg's sixteen months spent in India in 1961-2. Told in non-linear fashion, the story shifts often, like a moth zigzagging towards a light source, jumping between Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky's rendezvous with Joanne Kyger and Gary Snyder (Jack's hero Jahpy Rhyder in The Dharma Bums), Allen's camaraderie with Calcutta's coffeehouse poets, his desperate search for a guru in Benares, and being stoned out of his mind at the funeral pyres, then rewinding to his teen years, New York, the scene in San Francisco, friends like Kerouac, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso and a femme fatale named Hope Savage flitting into the narrative, backwards and forwards and back again, much like the mind might reconstruct existence on a sleepless night wondering how it all came together, this seemingly random chain of events that is called life.

Ginsberg's spiritual quest begins with his famous Blake vision in 1948. Twenty-two years old, confused by his homosexuality and whether or not he should dedicate his life to poetry or follow the American Way and occupy a real job, he experiences an auditory hallucination of William Blake's voice narrating his poem “Ah Sunflower!” He realizes then that “a poem might open the door to the cosmos” but also that the flip side of a mystical experience is paranoid delusion. Nevertheless, he decides to “never forget, never renege, never deny the sense sublime.”

Thus years later the trip to India. And “tripping” for Ginsberg is a loaded word. It involves drugs: pot, of course, mescaline in Mexico, ayahuasca in Peru, and Allen is conversant with Tim Leary on the social revolution they might engineer with LSD. But tripping for Allen was also the clumsy pratfalls of looking for meaning in foreign lands when one tires of the empty promises of home. Ginsberg was neither the first, nor certainly the last, Westerner coming to India assuming its exotic traditions was the answer to existential dilemmas. After more than a year abroad and no closer to replicating the sublimity of his Blakean vision, Allen is devastated. There is no guru who can nurture in Ginsberg some guidance to a higher enlightened state. Drugs have become “a blind alley” and anyway his friend Gary Snyder, an ascetic disciplined in meditation and koan study, often chastises Allen for even considering drugs could be the means for a breakthrough satori.

“Don't you want to study Zen and lose your ego?” Gary Snyder asked his wife, Joanne Kyger, who famously answered, “What! After all this struggle to obtain one?” This conundrum of mind-body balance-of-power affects many travelers to India, including Allen. However, while worrying and wondering what effect ego might have on mystical truths, Ginsberg finally learns that while he might never rein control over visionary powers, he nevertheless concludes being stuck as Allen Ginsberg isn't the worst. The purpose of the journey evolves-- India is not epiphany or new poetry, so much as acceptance of self, that is a gay, spiritual, sensitive, charismatic, questing, uniquely original Jewish American poet whose words have made many of us feel a little less lonely. Why embrace the Indian deities when William Blake might be his saint? An Indian sadhu tells Allen how he “had spent thirty years waiting for Krishna to appear to him, only to realize himself that it was not Krishna he sought, but the love he inspired.”



And that is the thing about Ginsberg: it is love, self-love, yes, everyone needs that, but more importantly brotherly love, love of Man, true, gentle love-- certainly more than Kerouac or the other Beats, and most other poets, who in trying to interpret God in verse, end up careless of others' feelings. For all his friends' emotional abuse and failure to reciprocate kindness, Allen is always there to give. That quality of goodness becomes evident in his friendships with the Calcutta coffeehouse poets, one of whom he helps leave India for America for a fellowship and whose life is thus transformed. At the heart of the Beats' stormy plans for poetry, revolution, and life, Ginsberg is the center of it all, the guiding light. He is nervous, silly, impressionable, high-strung but also reflective, empathetic, brave and strong, one of those artists who is wise enough to understand the monumental consequences of giving himself wholly over to poetry and does so anyway. We often travel to lose ourselves, to be free (as Thoreau wrote: “to reveal our truest self”) but in the end, coming home, we occasionally realize we were never quite so lost in the first place.