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."


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.