How to Kill a Cliché: Celebrating Sam Shepard

ss

Lee: …That’s stupid. That’s one a’ those?—?whadya’ call it? Whadya’ call that?
Austin: What?
Lee: Whadya’ call it when somethin’s been said a thousand times before. Whadya’ call that?
Austin: Um?—?a cliché?
Lee: Yeah. That’s right. Cliché. That’s what that is. A cliché… that’s stupid.

True West (1980)

My personal mantra, for more than two decades, has been doing everything humanly possible to make my life more artistic. That doesn’t merely extend to pursuing creative goals, but actually striving to some sublime, evanescent sweet spot where the lines blur: art as life and life through and in art.

From my own experience and what I’ve seen, read and heard, even our best literary practitioners have had a difficult time doing this with success. Most writers are on record, with equal parts regret and impunity, confessing that in order to fully dedicate themselves, it was inexorably at the expense of friends, family, life itself. Conversely, the inimitable Oscar Wilde lamented “I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works.”
The moral? Artists, too, are only human. Even the best of the best can only do so much, and something has to give.

This is one of the many reasons Sam Shepard has long been both idol and inspiration, as a writer and person. Off the top of my head, I’m not certain I can pinpoint anyone from the 20th Century who more fully realized his potential, as individual and artist. Like Wilde, he was blessed with talent and charm (not to mince words, he was a beautiful man), and he somehow managed to incorporate virtually every cliché of Americana, distilling it into his own, unique persona.

Semi-tortured artist, channeling our pathologies via works that were, on arrival, sui generis? Yes. Prototypical rugged individual, who mostly shunned the hackneyed trappings of fame, preserving both his integrity and his soul? Yes. Man’s man comfortable in the outdoors, and adept at working with either animals or his bare hands? (Quick: think of how many playwrights you’d actually be able to hunt with, get shitfaced with, talk books and music with, and with whom you’d hope to have by your side if your car broke down in the middle of nowhere. Unlike most contemporary men of the pen, Shepard could change his own oil, literally and figuratively.) The dude who got to spend quality time with Jessica Lange? Yeah, he did that too.

Oh, he was a pretty good actor, as well. A leading man who, like Neil Young, preferred heading into ditches of his own design.

As I said, clichés abound, but Shepard somehow wore them like rented tuxedos, suitable for the occasion. Actually, that’s not accurate; Shepard never rented or borrowed anything. That was the point of him.

Shepard managed to be his own man while inhabiting what we talk about when we talk about masculinity?—?both the manufactured and instinctive types. He was, in short, the real deal. Jim Harrison came close, Charles Bukowski, in his way, was a kind of poor man’s everyman; Ernest Hemingway was a legend in his own tortured mind (but, in fairness, he could walk the walk on a fishing boat or in a bar brawl). I’m still not certain there has been a superstar who stayed at the top of his game, on so many levels, for so long. To invoke the overused parlance of our time, Shepard acted like he’d been there before, even though he was continually exploring previously unmapped territory. Perhaps he’d appreciate the irony of using clichés to describe an iconoclast who obliterated cliché.

My favorite fact about Shepard, which has been confirmed in myriad interviews and features over the years, is that he could?—?and regularly did?—?just get in his car and drive. Anywhere, nowhere. He wasn’t running away, and this never seemed like some half-ass Jack Kerouac trip (In fact, I can’t recall a writer who more convincingly invoked nostalgia without being cranky; who could articulate what we’ve lost or are losing, sans sentimentality).

Check this out:

So they take off after each other straight into an endless black prairie. The sun is just comin’ down and they can feel the night on their backs. What they don’t know is that each one of ’em is afraid, see. Each one separately thinks that he’s the only one that’s afraid. And they keep ridin’ like that straight into the night. Not knowing. And the one who’s chasin’ doesn’t know where the other one is taking him. And the one who’s being chased doesn’t know where he’s going.

That’s from True West, arguably his best play, and probably his most autobiographical. It contains multitudes in ways that would make Whitman blush; it’s about nothing in ways that make Seinfeld seem like even less ado about little; it’s about everything (or at least identity, men and America) in ways that manage to make even DeLillo seem inadequate, or at least academic. Like a much less loquacious David Mamet, it captures and celebrates the drunk poetry of passive-aggressive male dialogue (not to mention the poetry of drunken men not being poetic) and nails both violence and ritual in ways that recall?—?and rival?—?the best work of Flannery O’Connor and Martin Scorsese.

In this one play, Shepard somehow manages to diagnose and deconstruct what it means to strive: as an artist, as a man, as a son, brother, father and failure. There’s plenty of humor, of course, but there’s also an unblinking desolation that Cormac McCarthy has made a career out of: we can attempt to outrun or outgun fate, or reality, or even cliché, but it’ll find us, eventually, alone and vulnerable. Go West, young man, the cliché says, and many men?—?famous and infamous?—?have died trying.

Did any writer go as deep and dark, so far and insightfully, into the machinations of mythologization and destruction inherent in our American Dream mythos, as Shepard? Plays like Buried Child (1978) and Curse of the Starving Class (1978) lay bare the hard scars of family dysfunction, the near-impossibility of self-invention (or reinvention), and the unappeasable thirst for something sweeter, better, different.

Shepard, with a historian’s appreciation for, and understanding of, a less complicated but more complex era, became a custodian for posterity. His ability to translate archetypal dreads for audiences without his acuity make him preternaturally modern. Time won’t touch his work, because his characters, and their concerns, are never here nor there; they might hope or need to be anywhere but in the present tense, but the forces compelling their motion (forward or backward) are infinite, and immutable.

Shepard needed to be everywhere, and nowhere, in order to write the way he lived, and vice versa. Self-aware but not above some old-fashioned existential angst, his art didn’t reflect his life so much as subsume it. Above all, he understood that conformity is the biggest cliché of them all. Even when he lit out for the lower frequencies, he always knew where he was going.

*This tribute originally appeared in PopMatters on 8/8/17.

Share

Celebrating Sam Shepard and the Artistic Life

sams

First off, before reading anything I have to say, do yourself a favor and check out this beautiful, eloquent tribute from Patti Smith.

Sam Shepard is one of my literary heroes, and it can suffice to say that my development –as a writer– would be incomplete without his positive influence. And, perhaps more importantly, my personality, such as it is, would be less happy and less, period, without his masterpiece, True West. I’ve been on record, literally for decades, wondering if and when smarter minds will prevail and make the production (recorded for PBS in the early ’80s) available to the public. Inexplicably, it never has been. That we live in an era of 24/7 everything, for free, and this performance, featuring the lean, hungry and brilliant John Malkovich, and Gary Sinise, before idiocy set in, survives only on old VHS cassettes and (thankfully) YouTube is a travesty.

Anyway, I could say a lot about what Shepard’s writing has meant to me, but a picture speaks proverbial volumes, right? Check this out:

SS

That’s, obviously, from a journal, circa 1990-something.

Sure, I’m embarrassed by how breathless and adolescent it seems. But that’s what young crushes are all about, right?

And I was young, and I was smitten.

If I’m older now, I hope I’ve learned a bit about both writing and life. But that initial enthusiasm remains, only now, having gotten a decade or two experience under my belt, my reaction to Sam Shepard is more like awe. That type of originality and brilliance is not something you can imitate or necessarily aspire to; it’s sui generis. But in addition to standing alone as superlative art, it also is a touchstone of inspiration. If you can’t at least attempt something unique and moving, why bother?

For that alone, I’ll remain grateful to have discovered Sam Shepard early, and ensuring he was never far from my eager eyes.

It’s 2017, which means (among many other things) that an increasing number of icons from the 2oth Century are going to be leaving us. That they’re irreplaceable is obvious; but some icons are more iconoclastic and inimitable than others. There should be a special place in our hearts, as writers, readers, Americans, humans, for role models like Sam Shepard.

 

 

 

Share

So It Goes: Reflections on Kurt Vonnegut (Ten Years Later)

kv

Kurt Vonnegut would say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. Often, he was asked: Have any artists successfully accomplished this? “The Beatles did”, he replied.

Vonnegut, whom time finally stuck to last week, lived a lot longer than he thought he would. For fans, he lived longer than many of them thought he would, too. Most of his avid readers have been preparing for his death, in earnest, since his suicide attempt in 1984. As it turned out, there were many more Pall Malls left to smoke. Then, in 1997, the author’s caliginous assertion that Timequake was to be his last novel did seem rather like a settling of accounts.

Fortunately, there was still time to tend to some unfinished business, and for another decade he would clean out the proverbial closets and compile the essays found in A Man Without a Country. He managed to remain active, and indignant, right up to the end, most recently sounding off on the idiocy of the Iraq misadventure. That the current administration caused him to consider Nixon in a fonder light speaks volumes of Vonnegut’s sensibility, and needs no elaboration. To be certain, Vonnegut made many people appreciate being alive more than a little bit; indeed, his greatest achievement may have been helping some people realize that they were alive, with his body of work that at once admonishes us to question reality and, whenever possible, to enjoy the ride.

And yet, Vonnegut was, in critical terms, on borrowed time pretty much for the duration after the unanticipated—and unimaginable—success of Slaughterhouse Five in 1969. The good news: maybe about five writers per half-century write defining texts that they can be certain, while they are still alive, will live on after them. The bad news: having to live with that (and never achieving that height again) while still trying to write new novels. That is to say, it is all but impossible for an author to impress anyone—his readers, the critics paid to write about what he has written, and mostly, himself—after composing a masterpiece in the middle of his life. The only thing more arduous is the incessant hangover of dread and expectation awaiting the novelist who knocks off a tour de force right out of the gate. Suffice it to say, Slaughterhouse Five proved to be a line in the literary sand he could never jump across (and not many other authors have either, for that matter), although he came as close as anyone should have reasonably hoped with Breakfast of Champions , a book that looked forward from World War II and its aftermath to the here and now of a country confronted by new concerns, such as Watergate, and more of the same old problems, like growing old and dying. That book, from 1973, if written by anyone else, could constitute a career. It’s not even unreasonable to imagine that, if Vonnegut had never parked himself in front of a typewriter after 1963, Cat’s Cradle would garner even more attention and receive more accolades than it already does.

(Too often, it seems, we are either celebrating artists too late, or we coronate the unworthy too early. It is not as complicated with our athletes when they retire: it’s generally a buoyant affair, with the extended goodwill of a swan song season, complete with gifts, accolades and standing ovations. Sure, there is some sadness in seeing a great performer leave the limelight, but the more famous the athlete is, the easier the transition to sanctified superstar afterlife. They are allowed (and perhaps entitled) to assume membership in an elite fraternity that never expires. Theirs is the glory to unrepentantly live in the past, invoke (even embellish) former flights of fancy, and generally rest on the laurels established in their youth.

With artists—novelists in particular—there are a completely different set of standards and expectations. The only ones at liberty to soar on the effulgent wings of yesterday’s triumph are those who have died, which renders them largely unable to appreciate the accolades. Indeed, not only is the living novelist forbidden from basking in the refractory glow of a former conquest, they are often haunted by it, forever in its insatiable shadow. One thinks of Ralph Ellison and the irremediable pressure he faced to somehow achieve anything after composing one of the surpassing texts of the 20th century, Invisible Man.)

In any event, one could sense a disappointment, even a petty resentment, in the rather tepid reviews and faint praise that Timequake generated. It was as if the prospect of an author of Vonnegut’s stature declaring, with his faculties intact, that he did not think he had any more novels in him called unaccustomed attention to the evanescent nature of any life. The fact is, Timequake did, in many ways, effectively and gracefully sum up several of the themes and concerns we could clumsily, if accurately call “Vonnegutian”.

If, on the other hand, he had just disappeared after writing Slaughterhouse Five—pulling a willful J.D. Salinger, or an inadvertent Percy Bysshe Shelley or a tedious, haphazard Malcolm Lowry—we would be in more familiar territory, allowed to write our own stories of what might have been. As socially perceptive literary architect, Vonnegut’s body of work simultaneously reflected and defined our times—often with a generous dose of humor, irreverence and buoyant elasticity. Vonnegut often confirmed what we already know (the world is crazy) while finding innovative ways to depict and deconstruct the machinations causing the craziness. He did not hold a mirror up to the world, per se, so much as he provided a blurred distinction between the sensible and the insane, the powerful and the unprotected, between justice and charade, reality and simulation. He understood, in short, that for most of us, our better angels are busy drowning in acculturated gray matter.

While never considered one of the more authoritative literary technicians, Vonnegut nonetheless was a model for clean writing that avoided pretense and overly polished prose. He wrote, directly, about concepts and chaos that are anything but simple to understand, and even more challenging to describe in a novel. Always with that grouchy finesse, not quite the wizened grandfather, more the wise uncle. Where Mark Twain, with whom he is often compared, could justifiably be accused of occasional crankiness, Vonnegut came off as a curmudgeon (at times) only in interviews; in his fiction his heart was so large and soft the pages are practically wet.

Autobiographical elements abound in Vonnegut’s work, and significantly, he paid the types of dues that were once a bit more obligatory: after the military he labored in a job he detested (working in public relations for General Electric) before managing to support himself, barely, through his writing. Still, his pain was our profit: he had already witnessed enough inanity and atrocity to provide fodder for the obsessions that would inform practically every line he wrote. What Vonnegut made seem effortless is a talent every writer should seek to emulate, and what more writers than you may think do desperately want to imitate: writing books that are embraced by the so-called highbrow and lowbrow readers. Vonnegut established a style that went deep by seeming simple and was disarming by being accessible. Take, for instance, Breakfast of Champions, which features actual drawings (by the author) scattered amongst the action: in just about anyone else’s hands this impertinence would seem distracting, even self-indulgent. Likewise, there is an authorial intrusion late in the novel that perhaps best evinces the dialogic narrative strategy Vonnegut used—mostly to perfection—throughout his work. His novels remain able to make all the copycats who tried to imitate him seem bromidic and drably predictable.

And yet Slaughterhouse Five, like virtually all of Vonnegut’s novels, concerns itself with one of the oldest—and most perplexingly commonplace—human dilemmas: man’s inhumanity to man. But how does one discuss war, violence, insanity, and injustice (for starters) without either preaching or unintentionally trivializing? This was Vonnegut’s special gift, and why the concept of Billy Pilgrim coming “unstuck in time” is revelatory: the author was not using science fiction pyrotechnics to mask an inability to express his ideas directly, he had actually hit upon a means by which he could communicate what our increasingly disjointed world was like to live in. In this way, Billy Pilgrim is everyman even as everything he describes is unlike anything the average reader is likely to have experienced (walking in the snow behind enemy lines, living through the Dresden firebombing, being abducted by aliens, and being taught an entirely different theory of relativity by those aliens, the Tralfamadorians). Vonnegut, of course, was really writing about the ways in which the alienated, often lonely person is affected by the pressure and perversity of life. Never before had hilarity and horror danced on the same page in quite this way. Not surprisingly, people (especially younger people) responded. On the other hand, the fact that Kurt Vonnegut was—and remains—much more popular with college students than adults says more about us than it does about his novels.

Interestingly, the sporadic outer space antics that surface in much of Vonnegut’s early work are, in fact, a prescient strategy of grappling with the very real—if inexplicable—horrors of our world after The Bomb, one of the many ways science fiction was—and remains—well equipped to critique today by projecting where we might be tomorrow. We look to works like Catch-22 that lampoons the military, books like Revolutionary Road or A Fan’s Notes that peel back the noisome carcass of quiet desperation hidden under the sit-com sensibility of the ‘50s, or anything from, for instance, Flannery O’Connor and Charles Bukowski that depict the desperate, the seedy, the unredeemed and mostly the inconspicuous citizens whom nobody otherwise acknowledges. But Kurt Vonnegut, as much as any single writer, connected these copious threads, and his collected works comprise a sort of freak flag that flies in the face of complacency, offering an alternative version of the official alibi: he managed to merge the lunacy and the aggression of his time in a broth of brio and vulnerability that could literally make you cackle and weep, all at once. In this regard, his writing is very much connected to the 20th Century, yet it is unlikely to lose its immediacy or relevance since it deals with the same problems that plagued us before he lived and will remain with us, long after we are gone.

So it goes.

Share

Sui generis on the rocks: Christopher Hitchens, Five Years On

christopher-hitchens-2

The best way to compliment a writer, as a reader, is to recommend their work to others. That I wholeheartedly do –and have done.

The best way to compliment a writer, as a writer, is to recognize, with neither regret nor resignation, that on your best day you will always stand in awe of what they achieved.

Reading and responding to The Hitch is ceaselessly inspiring and seldom less than exhilarating. More, it is an instigatory experience: it compels you to get involved more deeply with the world around and inside you. Reading any worthwhile writer is an act of celebration, a shared reaction to the act of creation. More, it is an exercise in how to write, read, think and live.

The best tribute I can offer to Hitch is that even when he infuriated me (something he did often when he wrote about politics after 9/11), he excited me. I’ve never read a writer who thrilled me as consistently and thoroughly as Hitchens did. He is one of the very few writers who could write about virtually anything and I’d want to read his take. Even, or perhaps especially, when I disagreed with him I came away a more informed and better equipped. In this sense, Hitchens –who at different times could accurately be described as a Marxist, a contrarian, a reactionary and an iconoclast– provided lessons for how to engage intellectually and spiritually (yes, spiritually) with the world. And think about those four words (and there are many others I could use): how many public figures could conceivably, much less convincingly, be described thusly? If Hitchens had sold out, his ostensibly contradictory stances might seem like a case of cognitive dissonance. In actuality, it was the evidence of his ongoing evolution, as a thinker, writer and human being. Evolution is never static, and Hitchens was always moving forward: ravenous, curious, ornery, insatiable. Above all, he burrowed into the world with the glee and intensity of a converted soul. His salvation was not religion; it was the simple and profound act of existing: I think, therefore I am.

Hitchens combined the range of Twain, the erudition of Mencken and the irreverence of Hunter S. Thompson. Of course he also had the political courage of Orwell, the acerbic wit of Cyril Connolly and the adroit literary acumen as his great friend Martin Amis. Of all the writers whose work I’ve worshipped, Hitchens was the most fully-formed summation of his influences; as a result of his monomaniacal addiction to knowledge, he produced an insight that is at once all-encompassing and wholly unique. At his best, Hitchens could remind you of any number of geniuses; at the same time, nobody else is like Hitchens. The Hitch is sui generis, on the rocks.

Here’s the deal: even as I felt intense discomfort for how cozy he became with the architects of our recently-concluded (?) quagmire, it was difficult to write him off. For one thing, he never stood to profit in any sense of the word, and I believe he was inexorably affected by what his mate Salman Rushdie endured (when he was notably one of the few artists willing to stand up and defend Rushdie). Over time he came to –wrongly in my view– perceive a very gray (and shady) situation as black and white. It wasn’t like he ever turned tail and apologized for being a liberal (like some of his ersthwhile allies did); he certainly did not embrace his new “friends” on the Right in any meaningful way. He was cocksure, inscrutable and resolute to the end; if he was a big pig-headed at times, in my estimation he was never opportunistic or craven. How many legit famous people can we say that about?

The best way to compliment a person for the life they lived is how they choose to die.

That seems to cute by half, but I can’t think of a better way to put it. Of course, few of us have the opportunity to choose how, or when, we die. For the unfortunate folks who contend with cancer, the choice is made for us. The true measure of the courage of one’s convictions is how those convictions hold up under duress. Hitchens promised he would never “find” religion once he was diagnosed with what turned out to be the ailment that took him out. True to his word, as usual, as ever, he was unflinching to the end, even as the hideous disease made him emaciated, weak and fried inside-out. (A bit more on how that happens, here.) True to his nature, he not only refused to give quarter, he took every opportunity to reiterate the feelings he had about all-things religious. (A bit more on that, here.)

People who live the right way are living lessons on how to exist, aspire and inevitably, to perish. Hitchens, through his example, will remain a vivid and unquenchable exhibit for how to suck the marrow out of this life, as Thoreau admonished us to do. The mind-boggling body of work he leaves behind will ensure that this world is never without him. Which, in the final analysis is a relief, because the world is already a poorer place without further input from this unbowed, inimitable piece of work.

Share

Thom Jones: The Pugilist at Rest (in Peace)

tj2

i.

HERE’S THE THING about clean-up hitters: they strike out a lot.

Then again, consider some of baseball’s most prodigious home run champions: Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth, the top three, had career batting averages of .298, .305 and .342, respectively. In baseball terms, excellent, but that also means they didn’t hit safely about sixty-to-seventy percent of the time they stepped to the plate. And these are the best of the best. Making a career at writing is not dissimilar to becoming a big league ball player: a hit every third attempt might enable you to remain employed, to call yourself a professional.

Thom Jones, in this umpire’s opinion, struck out a lot. He was a fast ball hitter, and when he saw a meatball down the middle, he could get hold of it. Epilepsy, punch-drunk boxers and wounded men battling addiction (to drugs, to drink, to bloodshed) comprised his sweet spot, and he returned to it often, albeit with increasingly diminished returns. When he stepped outside his comfort zone, the results could range from embarrassing to unreadable, and those moments occur with distressing frequency in his second (Cold Snap) and especially third (Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine) collections.

With very few exceptions, no honest (or sane) writer would quibble with a publishing history that confirms every third or fourth story is generally regarded as a home run, a minor classic, or even one worth remembering. Indeed, a great many writers would be perfectly content with every third or fourth story being an extra base hit. And then there are the thousands (millions?) of undiscovered writers who would trade years of their lives for a solitary single.

No sane or honest writer would ever want to be measured by their batting average of every published piece, over the course of a career.

You write often, as well as you can, and pray that, with a ton of practice and a little bit of luck, you manage to knock one clean out of the park. Mostly you just hope to make contact; to not strike out. Most of these failures, at least, don’t offend any audience; they languish—half-finished drafts, false starts and unattainable visions—in desk drawers or recycling bins.

Most writers, aware of the long odds and erratic whims of both publishers and potential readers, do their best to craft honest work that is more or less within the bounds of conventional taste, trusting the material is at once sufficiently unique and, for lack of a better word, straightforward. That’s to say, most writers (and it could be argued whether this applies more to obscure authors or established, even famous ones) are singles hitters. This is at once a function of the way publishing works (or doesn’t work—another topic altogether), and the internal battle most genuine writers wage that weighs originality vs. acceptance.

Note: I’m not talking about writing publishable work; writing that, for practical purposes, constitutes a single. I’m referring specifically to writers who, through ego or ability or ambition—or a combination of all three—set out to transcend cliché and write something unadulterated, that breaks some type of mold and becomes a new standard of sorts; something inimitable that itself will be emulated by future writers.

ii.

Thom Jones, like many famous writers, resists easy interpretation. A good chunk of his work is redundant, repurposed rather than convincing variations on a theme, and his penchant for stilted dialogue and ham-fisted histrionics mars some of his output. (Considering the publications he appeared in and the editors he worked with, it’s at once amusing and appalling to count the clichés throughout his three collections.) Another good chunk is serviceable, solid: a string of singles and the occasional double. He even hit a triple or two (These are recorded in Cold Snap; Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine is extremely tough going; taken on their own, the stories are underwhelming; compared to the previous collections they are somewhat excruciating…it can be debated that Jones burned out, lost his edge or, for any number of documented health reasons, couldn’t produce like he once did). But what separates him, and makes him worth celebrating, is that he had the audacity—and the skill—to make contact in historic fashion. We’re talking home runs like Carlton Fisk in ’75, Kirk Gibson in ’88 or Joe Carter with the walk-off World Series shot in ’93.

As it happens, all of these occur in his game-changing debut collection The Pugilist at Rest. A remarkable effort that deservingly became a National Book Award Finalist, it established Jones as a writer who, like Roy Hobbs, seemingly came out of nowhere, fully formed as a superstar. The title story’s publication is every writer’s dream; that one-in-a-billion fantasy: rescued from the slush pile and published by The New Yorker. That feat alone would more than satisfy most aspiring authors, but Jones, having alternately labored in obscurity and deferred his dream with years of substance abuse and self-sabotage, was ready for the big call-up. Unlike his next two books, there’s not a solitary stinker in the bunch. More significantly, of the eleven stories, (at least) six of them are no doubt dingers. Sabermetrically speaking, that’s well over .500, enough to ensure Jones legend status, one of the seminal debuts in the second-half of the 20th Century.

(To belabor the Hobbs metaphor, had Jones simply produced Pugilist, at 48, and then strode off into the sunset, he really might be considered the Wonderboy of short fiction.)

Opinions will—and should—vary, but in this critic’s estimation, six of these stories could be anthologized and might be studied by anyone hoping to ascertain what makes fiction memorable; what makes it resonate, what makes it work. The aforementioned title story, “Mosquitoes” and “Rocket Man” (allegedly Jones’s personal favorite) all clear the fence and will impart joy and delight (and envy) upon repeated readings.

With “A White Horse”, Jones manages to shoehorn Dostoyevsky, Hunter S. Thompson and the New Testament into a compressed tour de force—as well as any other story, this one best captures the outcast-in-search-of-epiphany. As a metaphor, the wealthy but unsettled protagonist shelling out hundreds to save a dying horse he encounters (à la Nietzsche) in the slums of Bombay seems at once familiar and surreal—Jones deftly combine pathos and desperation in the service of a postmodern parable, and cuts it (crucially) with humor.

Another masterpiece, and grand-slam, is the story of a dying woman entitled “I Want to Live!”. Older (but not that old), semi-estranged mother dying, alone, of cancer. Sound familiar? It’s to Jones’s considerable credit that he takes a potentially hackneyed subject that’s too often played for crocodile tear aesthetics, and deals, indelibly, with the heaviest—and trickiest—of issues: dread of death, longing for love, fear of a life wasted, et cetera.

Her friends came by. It was an effort to make small talk. How could they know? How could they know what it was like? They loved her, they said, with liquor on their breath. They had to get juiced before they could stand to come by! They came with casseroles and cleaned for her, but she had to sweat out her nights alone.

In less than thirty pages, Jones modernizes “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, without the lugubrious sermonizing and melodrama Tolstoy, even at his best, struggled to suppress. It’s an unflinching, albeit harrowing tour of a helpless but not entirely hopeless woman’s death courtesy The Big C. In addition to merely working, as literature, it can console one with intimate experience with the disease, or prepare uninitiated readers for something too many families are forced to confront.

“The Black Lights”, a novel in miniature, could work as a longer piece (the writing is so unsullied, the characters so memorable, the recurring tension so concentrated), but illustrates the curious, often ineffable magic of the short form. There’s enough backstory related through flashback to provide a sense of who the narrator is, but the action occurs in the present, and we have no idea what the future holds, nor should we. In one of many astonishing passages, a Vietnam veteran stuck in a neuropsych ward to recover from his anxiety-induced epileptic seizures describes his first experience in a straitjacket (after driving the fellow patients to distraction with his paranoia that a large homicidal rabbit is lying in wait beneath his bed):

I forced myself to lie still, and it seemed that my brain was filled with sawdust and that centipedes, roaches, and other insects were crawling through it. I could taste brown rabbit fur in my teeth. I had a horror that the rabbit would come in the room, lie on my face, and suffocate me.

Finally released, months later, our anti-hero exits the base in one of the more memorable—and satisfying—endings of any modern short story. A bit of dialogue he exchanges with a fellow Marine typifies Jones, at the height of his powers:

“…You want to know something?”

“What’s that?”

“I stole this fucking car. Hot-wired the motherfucker.”

“Far out,” I said. “Which way you going?”

“As far as five bucks in gas will take me.”

“I got a little money. Drive me to Haight-Ashbury?”

“Groovy. What are you doing, man, picking your nose?”

“Just checking for cockroaches,” I said weakly.

This is a story that does everything the best writing aspires to do: it stays read, and changes the way you read, and understand, subsequent work. (In terms of Jones’s work, he arguably set the bar too high to approach that level again himself, but in the final analysis what matters is that he ever got there in the first place.)

iii.

To once again invoke Tolstoy, it could be said that all writers are unhappy, but each writer is unhappy in his or her own way.

Thom Jones, by any benchmark, had a difficult life before, during and after The Pugilist at Rest was published (1993). An absent father who later committed suicide in a mental institution, Marine boot camp, boxing injuries resulting in epilepsy: these themes, which recur like grisly hallucinations in his fiction, all derived from his actual life. Indeed, by the time he was twenty, he’d already experienced the trauma and tragedy that would inform his best work.

Like Raymond Carver, Jones excels at depicting the seedier side of life, black and blue faces with blue collars as opposed to suits and suburban existential howling. Like Charles Bukowski, it’s not difficult to detect a clear line connecting the characters, situations and the person writing about them. Like Tim O’Brien, it’s not so much that his personal history serves as impetus but rather, the obsessions of memory, pain and regret are at once a unifying theme and creative cul-de-sac.

(Put another way, he was the anti-Updike; it is both refreshing and a little heroic that his work bulldogged its way into The New Yorker, unapologetic—but indubitably worthy—turds in that pristine literary punch bowl.)

Jones circled around these washed up palookas, chemically-altered outlaws and quiet nobodies in search of a rock to crawl under because he knew them; he was (or had been) one of them himself. His most compelling pieces seem unforced and unfettered because, while undeniably autobiographical, Jones used fiction as exploration, not therapy. In “The Pugilist at Rest”, the narrator invokes Theogenes, “the greatest of gladiators”, who fought—and won—fourteen hundred and twenty-five life and death battles. The statue commemorating this fighter (an image of which decorates the front cover) becomes the central metaphor not only for this story, but the entire collection. Indeed, the notion of a scarred and skillful brawler being called into the ring, yet again, to provide a spectacle, a distraction or voyeuristic pleasure, is an appropriate allegory for Jones’s career.

Jones once remarked that “in the act of writing I’m not Thom Jones. And it’s such a relief to not be Thom Jones.” How inspiring, how refreshing, how sad. It doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine that Jones had a strenuous life, even after 1993, and the inability to retain his title simply means he’s more Jake LaMotta and less Sugar Ray Robinson—not a one-shot wunderkind but a career scrapper who banged back at a world intent on beating the shit out of him. Whether or not he had a great deal more to write, the only fact that matters is that he took his one shot and made it count. Hopefully he redeemed a great deal of disillusionment with that triumph, but regardless, he had to know he’d escaped the most ignoble fate: obscurity.

His refusal to quit and unwillingness to sentimentalize his past is a testament to his character (that he didn’t need to sensationalize his past is testament to the extraordinary obstacles he overcame). That he plugged away, before and after he was famous, and that he turned his vocation into one long battle is a testament to his resolve, and artistic integrity. And while he wrote about manly men doing macho shit, Jones was the anti-Hollywood writer in the sense that he understood the sadness and futility of fighting, boozing, womanizing and hatred directed inward or outward. He learned how to write the way he learned how to survive: the hard way, with no short cuts and few excuses. His ability to craft unforgettable tales of otherwise forgettable people will endure as the ultimate testament to his distinct talent and warrior’s heart.

tj1

This essay originally appeared in The Weeklings on 10/27/16.

Share

In Defense of Stephen King (Revisited)

Stephen_King_we_never_sleep-256x400

(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

FACT: STEPHEN KING, the most successful author of our time, arguably toils more diligently than any other writer. For this alone he deserves recognition and respect.

To the haters: Yes, it’s unlikely any of his works will ever be dissected in graduate seminars. But ask any writer, in whatever genre, about their ultimate goal and the honest, simple answer is to be read. On this score, King has achieved what few authors, of any time, will. For this, too, recognition and respect—however grudging—is warranted.

To the savvy social media hipsters: How many likes did you get on that pithy post? You have how many Twitter followers? Keep channeling that energy into tweets, cultivate your online presence to evanescent perfection. King just wrote another novel while you refreshed your screen.

Here’s the Thing about King: he is so incredibly, so preposterously productive it’s not unreasonable to imagine the thousands (millions?) of trees that would still be standing if he’d at any time decided to take his foot off the throttle. Then again, how can we do anything but admire an artist for shutting out the very distractions we love to lament? How much reality TV time do you think King is racking up? How many hours is he wasting on Facebook? Sure, he’s afforded himself the luxury of not needing to pay the bills, so he gets up every day and punches a different kind of clock, and his time seems regulated not by machines but the engine inside him. This drive—it can’t be for money, it’s unlikely he craves more fame—keeps him engaged and, if it gives him no rest in the superficial sense, it’s provided him peace.

If he won’t be accused of being a craftsman, he should be celebrated for putting on his boots every day, without exception or excuse, and killing more trees. Stephen King is the Paul Bunyan of fiction, America’s literary lumberjack.

~

It’s actually not that difficult to imagine some of King’s novels getting the grad school treatment; at the very least they may be ripe for undergraduate-level exegesis: “English 301: Stephen King and the Pop-Culture Apotheosis”. Here, let’s give it a shot.

Salem’s Lot can be interpreted as an extended metaphor about the increasing cycle of parasitic capitalism, forcing blue collar folks to feed off the blood of the upper classes, until egalitarianism is achieved, at last, through eternal predation. (But no, it’s just a book about vampires rampaging through a small New England town.)

Cujo was written, so the author claims, while he was putting more blow up his nose than Tony Montana in Scarface. Perhaps we can reconsider the mucus-coated muzzle of the St. Bernard as an extended allegory regarding the danger and disempowering potential of hard drugs. Or greed, or power, or any vice. (But no, it’s just a book about a big rabid dog rampaging through a small New England town.)

Christine: a car possessed by the soul of its original owner, or a car that possessed the soul of its original owner, who now possesses the car that possesses the soul of its new owner: a Borgesian labyrinth deconstructing the self-abnegation and reincarnation inherent in the act of creation? (No, it’s just a book about a car rampaging through a small New England town.)

Is it exhausting reading this? It’s exhausting just writing it. Plus, the uninitiated could simply watch the movies. Though, in fairness, even the better movies are worse than the most mediocre books (yes, for my money that includes the overly saccharine and sentimental crowd favorites Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption). Again, one thinks of the recurring theme of carnage and the inestimable tonnage of trees…

~

Stephen King has been a bit more defiant in recent years, and he’s earned the right to be a tad truculent about his influence. Selling more than 350 million books and making multiple generations of readers into fanatics is undoubtedly gratifying and something a fraction of writers will ever experience. And he can boast penning at least three novels that anticipated colossal cultural trends: he made vampires cool again (a few decades ahead of schedule), he conjured up a delusional sociopath jump-starting a nuclear apocalypse before Reagan took office, and envisioned a devastating pandemic before AIDS became front-page news (‘Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, and The Stand, respectively). This trifecta alone earns him street cred that should extend beyond literary circles. Yet clearly, the critical backlash accumulated over the years sticks in King’s craw. As an éminence grise who, it might also be pointed out, paid his dues for many years before his “overnight” success, he is aware he’ll always be a tough sell for the lit-crit crowd.

In his recent, extended interview in Rolling Stone, King is candid, calm, and not above throwing a few haymakers at some usual—and a couple of unusual—suspects. He gets his licks in on the insufferable Harold Bloom (who went out of his way to savage King when the latter won the National Book Award in 2003), whom he describes as taking “(his) ignorance about popular culture as a badge of intellectual prowess”. Fair enough. If King’s ghastliest work injures the eyes, it doesn’t quite deaden the senses the way Bloom’s sacred cow shenanigans often do. As such, King’s bitter tea tastes pretty sweet on the page, and he is justified for calling out people who dismiss him out of hand.

King correctly connects the dots between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Jim Thompson; he rightly invokes Twain and delivers some welcome insights on the ways we are conditioned to receive and respond to different mediums. And his commentary begs necessary—or at least worthwhile—questions regarding labels and poles, high-brow and third-rate, and whether the twain shall meet (they always do, of course, as Mark Twain himself proves). His observations, for instance, on Jaws—and how movies are capable of attaining a credibility seldom afforded to popular fiction—offer a refreshing alternative analysis regarding what his work is, who it serves, where it appeals, and why it will endure, in its way.

And then, with a chip on his shoulder as Big as the Ritz, he takes a curious swipe at Fitzgerald, who probably spent more time polishing a paragraph than King takes to write a rough draft. He also sets his sights on Hemingway, and his remarks underscore how simultaneously disarming and exasperating King can be. “Hemingway sucks, basically. If people like that, terrific,” he shrugs, gauntlet thrown.

These comments are not as sacrilegious as they may seem, at first. It’s difficult to deny that Hemingway—and much of what he epitomized—continues to age poorly, and some of his novels are as overrated as some of King’s are unfairly maligned. On the other hand, The Sun Also Rises establishes sufficient evidence of Hemingway’s brilliance, and many of his short stories are more indispensable than anything King has written (particularly his own short stories). For all the hype and possibly deleterious influence of Papa’s minimalism, it does serve as an aesthetic antidote for King, a writer who edits his tomes the way weeds regulate their growth.

King asserts that he has elevated the horror genre, and few would disagree, even if some might say: “So?” He compares himself to Raymond Chandler whom he credits with elevating the detective genre. It’s clear that what King covets is more respect. His disdain for the Literary Industrial Complex is understandable, but—unfortunately for him—the people he loves to loathe are typically the arbiters of these matters. On one hand, he can point to his sales stats and declare victory (that’s what Hemingway might do; it’s also what Tom Clancy—whom King hopes to distance himself from—did). On the other hand, all the clever arguments and eyebrow-raising one-liners can’t accomplish what his work must do on its own accord. If sales and celebrity are what distinguish hacks from legends, in the end it’s always the writing itself that must outlast or endure the hype.

~

Let me tell you a story.

Stephen King has been very good to me. If I haven’t read anything he’s written since the late ‘80s, I sure as shit read everything up to that point. I first encountered him in grade school: I saw ‘Salem’s Lot, then I read it. Ditto Carrie. From then on, he was always there for me, a new book every time I needed one. By the time I caught up with the back catalog, he was on his early-to-mid decade roll, cranking out Cujo, Christine, Different Seasons, etc. It was also around this time that every King effort was made into a movie, so in many regards it was all King all the time for a while there.

It was the Ulysses of my adolescence; that novel contained the universe (known, unknown) to me, circa 1987. And if it transfixed me, then, I can still admire the adrenaline and drive, the ambition and sheer endurance it takes to attempt—much less pull off—such a project. When we found out, in 1985, that he was also pumping out product as Richard Bachman the scope of his capabilities became apparent. He was Beethoven: inhuman, unreal, too prolific to adequately measure in logical terms, teenager-wise.

It was my Holy Grail; even as a sixteen year old I suspected nothing could ever be the same, I stoically anticipated the inexorable comedown: How can he follow this? How can I? Coincidentally or not, soon thereafter I went to college, girls became more than a yearning concept (where they had heretofore been mostly unimaginable, even dangerous, if not quite able to start fires with their minds able to confound and incinerate my own illusions). An undergraduate no longer requires whimsical nightmares via fiction; he is too busy instigating them in real life. Above all, I read authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald for the first time. Hemingway, too, of whom it can succinctly be stated: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” conceivably has more heft than the best 100 pages King’s ever typed. In sum, I grew up. That’s not to suggest King is more suited for children, it’s to relate that the more widely I read, the more acutely I realized ten lifetimes would scarcely present an opportunity to cover the menu I was compiling.

And yet. King made me want to write. He made me want to be a writer. He was the one who consistently made the magic happen. He cracked the furtive code of storytelling: creating memorable, occasionally indelible characters, and, through the use of words and imagination, making our world more vital, more real. (And, importantly, he has never taken himself too seriously.)

Stephen King remains as relevant as ever, as a concept if nothing else. While we behold the ongoing implosion of the traditional (and often dysfunctional, elitist, undemocratic) book publishing industry, we should commend a multi-millionaire who is still, somehow, an underdog. King is an unacknowledged legislator of sorts, the man of the people most politicians pretend to be. Accuse him of anything, but no one can say King does not care—about his characters, his readers, his craft. Quick: how many artists of any kind, regardless of rank or reputation, roll out of bed and get busy every day, including weekends?

Even if the quality is forever debatable, King’s picture could hang on any aspiring writer’s desk. Not enticed by (more) money or accolades, King goes about his business without distraction or depletion: he puts pen to paper and does the work. That King is still driven by those demons and finds his faith (in writing, in himself) intact after all this time makes him a hero of sorts. Toward the end of the Rolling Stone interview he describes his vocation as only the luckiest and most blessed amongst us ever will: “It fulfills me,” he says. “There are two things I like about it: It makes me happy, and it makes other people happy.” There is a peace there, something that combines Zen and the certainty of a difficult job, dutifully done. It is, in the final analysis, good to be The King.

*This essay originally appeared at The Weeklings on 3/31/2015.

Share

Rage Against the MFA Machine (Revisited)

Wonder Boys (2003)

(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

The people I’ve known in MFA programs (yesterday, today, and probably twenty years from now) get taught to write.
Or, they get taught to write short stories.
Or, they get programmed to write short stories.
Or, they get programmed to write certain types of short stories.
And?
The language is usually okay, although clichés are dispensed like crutches in an infirmary. The effort, for the most part, is there (no one, after all, would take the time to take a crack at serious writing unless they wanted to do it right; the only exceptions are the ones to whom it comes easily and who write the way most people urinate: often, every day, and it’s mostly water, or the other sort: the ones who don’t have time to actually write because they are talking about all the books they have planned out in their pointy heads, not only because it is less complicated to discuss ones brilliance at a party or in a bar, but also because there is always an audience, however reluctant). The underlying impulse, the central nervous system of these short stories, always at least approximates technical proficiency.
So?
What we wind up with is a story that avoids everything the young writer has not experienced: love, fear, empathy, and understanding. For starters. Style over substance equals an anaesthetized aesthetic; a soulless solution for a problem the writer created. And the short story, upon inspection, is a shell that reveals its non-essence. Poetic pronouncements of some of the important things the student does not understand.
In other words: short stories that might sell. Short stories that strive to be successful. Short stories for readers with short memories. And in some cases, a star is born.

Share

Straight, No Chaser (Revisited)

vincent-van-gogh-night-cafe1

This Sunday’s New York Times magazine features a lengthy, but worthwhile appraisal of John Cheever by Charles McGrath. The piece reassesses Cheever’s current status (McGrath correctly concedes that Cheever, who died in 1982, has had his star fade in the last decade or two), and perhaps in light of John Updike’s recent passing (he made it to 76; more McGrath here), it is difficult to believe the “Chekhov of the suburbs”, as he was sometimes called (in a way that only a regular contributor to The New Yorker, that literary bible of upper-middle class, over-educated and angst-ridden WASPs could be) did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his collected short stories. Those stories, taken along with his novels (some highly regarded, others not so much) seemed to constitute a significant pillar in the modern American pantheon (modern meaning three to four decades ago).

When Cheever died, McGrath recalls: his literary reputation seemed as secure as literary reputations get. You would have bought shares in it if you speculated in such things. He was a widely acknowledged master of the short story, in a league with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Updike, who said that Cheever wrote “as if with the quill from the wing of an angel.” Now, not so much. The aforementioned collection of short stories, still largely regarded (for better or worse) as one of the seminal works of 20th Century American fiction, sells approximately 5,000 copies a year. Not shabby, McGrath acknowledges, but pretty depressing when you consider this asshole probably sold more books in the last ten minutes than the Cheever catalog will sell in the next ten years.

Nevertheless, (and this seems to be one of McGrath’s implications) it stands to reason that with the understandable hubbub stirred up by Updike’s death and the celluloid reincarnation of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road (haven’t seen it yet, but if it’s half as depressing as the novel, it will be very depressing indeed), the time may be ripe for a reassessment of Cheever, that bard of suburban despair. We’ll see. As we slouch toward a not-so-great Depression, I suspect that nostalgia for the black-and-white TV era in America might not entice too many young readers. Having to brown bag lunch it once in a while (do they even make brown bags anymore?) is about as retro as most middle-aged clock punchers want to get. I can’t say I blame them. Also, remember how quaint some of the characters seemed, when we read about them in the late ’70s and early ’80s? Think about how ancient, and boring, those loquacious and well-mannered (not to mention mostly lillywhite) characters will seem to X-box educated pupils today.

Let’s put it this way: to get a handle on Cheever, you need to have at least a passing appreciation of a time when people poured their spirits out of glass decanters (you need to know what a decanter is). An era when women drank, and smoked, all through their pregnancies just so they could keep pace with their husbands. McGrath speaks to Mary, Cheever’s 90 year old widow, and she reminisces about how certain folks rolled back in the day: “I just couldn’t keep him from drinking,” and went on: “But everyone drank a lot back then. People don’t always understand that now. Sometimes someone would even have to be put to bed before dinner, but that’s just the way it was.”

That remark, remarkable in its stoic, unsentimental honesty, reminded me of Cheever’s much-anthologized short story The Swimmer http://shortstoryclassics.50megs.com/cheeverswimmer.html

It also (inexorably) reminded me of something I wrote*–which I do not quote to flatter myself by comparison with Cheever (trust me) so much as to acknowledge that the generational divide I invoke is from the same era Cheever lived, wrote and drank in:

With Pavlovian precision, I make my way to the medicine cabinet and pour myself a bracing plug of bourbon. It’s more than I need or deserve, I think, but I don’t want the bottle to suspect I was unfaithful in another town, waiting for my return flight for instance, in a cramped and crappy airport bar at La Guardia. If this were a movie (I think, mostly in the past, but even today), I would grab my crystal decanter, filled with obviously expensive spirits, and administer that potion the old-fashioned way, needing no ice cubes, especially since I would never get around to drinking it, as it’s only a prop, a cliché. No one reaches for that tumbler these days (except in movies); the question is: did they ever? Even in the ‘50’s? Or has it always been part of the script?

I still have hangovers, thank God.

Everyone who has known an alcoholic knows that as soon as you stop feeling the pain, it’s because you are no longer feeling the pain; you are no longer feeling much of anything.

So, I welcome the horrors of the digital cock crowing in my ear at an uncalled for hour, am grateful for the flaming phlegm in my throat, the snakes chasing their tails through my sinuses, the smoke stuck behind my eyelids, the shards of glass in my gut, and the special ring of hell circling my head. Because if it weren’t for those handful of my least favorite things, I’d know I had some serious problems.

All of us can think of a friend whose father (or mother for that matter), we came to understand, was in an entirely different league when it came to the science of cirrhosis. The man who falls asleep fully clothed with a snifter balanced over his balls, then up and out the door before sunrise—like the rest of the inverted vampires who do their dirty work during the day in three piece suits. Maybe it was a martini at lunch, or several cigarettes an hour to take the edge of. Whatever it was, whatever it took, they always made it out, and they always came back, for the family and to the refrigerator, filled with the best friends anyone can afford.

Our friends’ fathers came of age in the bad old days that fight it out, for posterity, in the pages of books, uneasy memories and the wishful thinking of TV reruns: the ‘50’s. These are men who have never opened a bottle of wine and have no use for imported beer, men who actually have rye in their liquor cabinets—who still have liquor cabinets for that matter. These are men who were raised by men that never considered church or sick-days optional, and the only thing they disliked more than strangers was their neighbors. Men who didn’t believe in diseases and didn’t drink to escape so much as to remind themselves exactly what they never had a chance to become. Theirs was an alcoholism that did not involve happy hours and karaoke contests; theirs was a sit down with the radio and a whiskey sour, a refill with dinner and one before, during and after the ballgame. Or maybe they’d mow the lawn to liven things up, tinker under the hood of a car that had decades to go before it could become a classic. Or perhaps friends would come over to play cards. Sometimes a second bottle would get broken out. This was a slow burn of similar nights: stiff upper lips, the sun setting on boys playing baseball, mothers sitting on the couch watching TVs families did not yet own, of forced smiles battling bottled tears in the bottom of a coffee mug, of amphetamines and affairs, overhead fans and undernourished kids, of evening papers and a creeping conviction that there is no God, of poets unable to make art out of the mess they’d made of their lives. It was a hard time where people did not live happily ever after, if they ever lived at all. It was a time, in other words, not unlike our own.

 

Share

What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex (In Fiction)

goldfinger-300x235

WRITING ABOUT SEX is like engaging in sex: it’s hard.

Or, it should be.

It’s that time of year again, where we can count on three things: shopping-related stress during Thanksgiving, family-related stress during Christmas, and in between the two, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award conducted by London’s Literary Review. The 22nd annual honor was awarded last week and Ben Okri takes top prize for the suitably horrific scene in his novel The Age of Magic. More on him and the runners-up here.

This event is not a lark, or limited to third-tier writers. Some legit semi-heavyweights have taken this crown, including Tom Wolfe, David Guterson and (shocker) Norman Mailer. Amusingly—and appropriately—John Updike won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008; astonishingly, Philip Roth has never reaped what he’s blown, though it’s undeniably not for lack of trying. Take this passage (please) from The Dying Animal: “…with my knees planted to either side of her and my ass centered over her, I leaned into her face and rhythmically, without letup, I fucked her mouth.” (This and other of Roth’s overly penetrating portrayals were wonderfully cataloged by Christoper Hitchens in an epic, scathing 2007 piece for The Atlantic.)

Here’s the, um, climax of this year’s best worst passage, according to the intrepid readers and judgers at Literary Review: “The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.” Okay, that’s pretty terrible. Or awe-inspiring in its awfulness. How about an incriminating précis of reigning champs from recent years? Here’s a portion of 2012’s winning bit, by Nancy Houston (from Infrared): “oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alteration, never will I tire of that silver fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water.” That’s impossible to outdo. No it isn’t. Check this, from 2010, courtesy of Rowan Somerville (from The Shape of Her): “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.” It can’t credibly get worse than that, right? Wrong. Rachel Johnson raised the lowest of bars in 2008 with this (from Shire Hell): “he holds both my arms down, and puts his tongue to my core, like a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as to not miss a single drop.”

A pattern emphatically emerges, even with this, er, small sample size. They are all aesthetically offensive, cliché-ridden, and suffer from self-consciousness—either too much or a total lack thereof. Regardless of taste or tact, few readers—or few folks with a modicum of experience either fornicating or writing fiction about it—would quibble with how excruciating these excerpts are.

Yet in 2010, Laura Miller at Salon took exception to the glee with which these dishonors are doled out, the entire affair a combination of prurience and the puritanical impulse that has ever afflicted our upper classes. She posits that we are a bunch of snobs when it comes to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup proposition of combining sex and literature. I think she (wisely? cynically?) uses the occasion of the Bad Sex Award to make a larger point about what we talk about when we talk about sex (in fiction): she’s all for it. She does, however, utilize a bit of a Straw Man to complain about the Literary Review’s annual endeavor, suggesting that more self-aware readers have—or should have—no qualms about moments of ardor (and the moments those moments lead to) artistically rendered.

I think the issue is not so much that these scenes exist, but that they’re invariably so uninspired or unintentionally ridiculous. Or, readers aren’t saying not to include sex in novels, but that writers should do everyone a favor and 86 the 69, or any scenes that make a mockery of the function so many people hold sacred—at least in theory. After all, the mostly unspoken calculus that occurs under cover of intimacy compels relationships and builds or destroys marriages, even families. In other words, it’s noteworthy. Indeed, for more members of our species than we may care to admit, the deed (the thought of it, the desire for it, and the lack of it) influences almost every waking moment. So, perhaps this award offers a welcome—and by the abundance of material to choose from each year, often unheeded—admonishment for those who would kiss and tell: proceed warily if you must.

7168-triptych-of-garden-of-earthly-delig-hieronymus-bosch

Is this too much to ask?

Let’s face it: convincing sex scenes happen seldom enough in real life. How—or why—do we expect them to occur in literature? Especially when most writers (the honest ones would admit) are not exactly Lotharios, unless you count the hackneyed rite of passage so frequently painted, involving the professorial seduction of the over-achieving undergrad. And these scenes, even though the authors don’t realize it, are less erotic than confessional—and more than a little embarrassing for all involved. I’ve unfailingly seen the most accomplished authors flummoxed while attempting a basic depiction of consensual love. Or lust.

So how do you do it?

Sex scenes, that is.

Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the act, much less the art, of seduction and surrender understands that successful sex is like almost any human enterprise: you don’t need to talk about it if you can do it—whatever it is. Or, the people who speak (and write) the loudest are probably not the people you want beneath you or on top of you, and they certainly are not the ones you should be paying to be your creative tour guide.

A personal favorite comes from the immortal Richard Burton writing about the immortal Liz Taylor. “Apocalyptic,” was how he described her breasts. “They would topple empires before they withered.” That’s not even a sex scene, and Burton was, of course, an actor, but there are novelists whose collected works don’t contain a line that perfect.

I’m not sure when, or if, The Canterbury Tales started to make sense, but I know things got interesting when I realized everyone apparently was shagging one another, albeit in a difficult-to-understand language. In hindsight, I suspect my professor was hoping to make the material a bit more uh, titillating to easily-distracted students, but I came away with the notion that Chaucer was a bit of a Player. “The Miller’s Tale” alone is practically a medieval sex manual.

Exhibit A: “When Nicholas had doon thus everydeel/He thakked hire about the lendes weel/He kiste hire swete, and taketh his sautrye/And pleyeth faste, and maketh melodye.”

Exhibit B: “And prively he caughte hire by the queynte/And seyde ‘Y-wis, but if ich have my wille/For derne love of thee, lemman, I spille.” (Google queynte.)

Of course an entire essay could be devoted to virtually any play by Shakespeare, who arguably combined passion, humor and lasciviousness with more élan than any writer, in any language.

Show, don’t tell. That’s the sacrosanct tenet we’re taught in English class around the same time we are(n’t) being taught Sex Ed. And except for the masters (in art; in life) who actually did it and are speaking from experience, the rule should always apply. The exception can—and should—be made for the ones who are able to put it plainly because their prose is essentially a declaration: I did it, this is how I did it, and if you hope to do it you might imitate my expertise. Put another way, I learned more from Milan Kundera and his understated field notes during my formative years than I ever did from any of the more cocky and forthcoming Locker Room Don-Juan wannabes. And the less said about our more celebrated purveyors of purple-prosed nerd porn like Updike and Roth the better.

Everyone knows most writers are long on word and short on action, with the exception of Ernest Hemingway. He allegedly got plenty of action and instigated lots of excitement, but a contrived—and increasingly pathetic—code of masculinity was the white whale he chased, in his fiction and in his life, until he got too old to make it or fake it. (A Freudian could have a field day with what his minimalism actually signifies.) Perhaps our best semi-contemporary practitioner of doing in print what he did—or wanted to do—in the bedroom, is Charles Bukowski. A dirty old man and making no bones about it, he nevertheless expresses so many thoughts and emotions sex imbues with the requisite comic, tragic and prosaic elements it merits, in reality.

And when all else fails, experts have informed me that’s what the Internet is for. Nevermind books and even movies. If music, or conversation—that old fashioned and unforced chemistry called charm—or a competently cooked meal can’t get you to the Promised Land, you may as well cast a line into the weird, wild web. And, if you are irretrievably old school, seek salvation in one of those books with Fabio on the cover. If you want the genuine article, suitable for a certain type of reading, why settle for half-assed posturing when you can get your Harlequin on?

In the final analysis, the wisest way to handle any conquest, real or imagined, is to imitate the great ones and act—or at least pretend— like you’ve been there before. And for us literary types, it’s worth recalling the words of wisdom offered by the (fictional) intercourse aficionado Jackie Treehorn: People forget that the brain is the biggest erogenous zone.

Again, writing about sex is hard. Except when it’s not hard enough. And therein, as The Bard reminds us, lies the rub.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 12/10/2014.

Share

Sui generis on the rocks: Christopher Hitchens (Revisited)

ch-300x240

The best way to compliment a writer, as a reader, is to recommend their work to others. That I wholeheartedly do, and have done.

The best way to compliment a writer, as a writer, is to recognize, with neither regret nor resignation, that on your best day you will always stand in awe of what they achieved.

Reading and responding to The Hitch is ceaselessly inspiring and seldom less than exhilarating. More, it is an instigatory experience: it compels you to get involved more deeply with the world around and inside you. Reading any worthwhile writer is an act of celebration, a shared reaction to the act of creation. More, it is an exercise in how to write, read, think and live.

The best tribute I can offer to Hitch is that even when he infuriated me (something he did often when he wrote about politics after 9/11), he excited me. I’ve never read a writer who thrilled me as consistently and thoroughly as Hitchens did. He is one of the very few writers who could write about virtually anything and I’d want to read his take. Even, or perhaps especially, when I disagreed with him I came away a more informed and better equipped. In this sense, Hitchens –who at different times could accurately be described as a Marxist, a contrarian, a reactionary and an iconoclast– provided lessons for how to engage intellectually and spiritually (yes, spiritually) with the world. And think about those four words (and there are many others I could use): how many public figures could conceivably, much less convincingly, be described thusly? If Hitchens had sold out, his ostensibly contradictory stances might seem like a case of cognitive dissonance. In actuality, it was the evidence of his ongoing evolution, as a thinker, writer and human being. Evolution is never static, and Hitchens was always moving forward: ravenous, curious, ornery, insatiable. Above all, he burrowed into the world with the glee and intensity of a converted soul. His salvation was not religion; it was the simple and profound act of existing: I think, therefore I am.

Hitchens combined the range of Twain, the erudition of Mencken and the irreverence of Hunter S. Thompson. Of course he also had the political courage of Orwell, the acerbic wit of Cyril Connolly and the adroit literary acumen as his great friend Martin Amis. Of all the writers whose work I’ve worshipped, Hitchens was the most fully-formed summation of his influences; as a result of his monomaniacal addiction to knowledge, he produced an insight that is at once all-encompassing and wholly unique. At his best, Hitchens could remind you of any number of geniuses; at the same time, nobody else is like Hitchens. The Hitch is sui generis, on the rocks.

Here’s the deal: even as I felt intense discomfort for how cozy he became with the architects of our recently-concluded (?) quagmire, it was difficult to write him off. For one thing, he never stood to profit in any sense of the word, and I believe he was inexorably affected by what his mate Salman Rushdie endured (when he was notably one of the few artists willing to stand up and defend Rushdie). Over time he came to –wrongly in my view– perceive a very gray (and shady) situation as black and white. It wasn’t like he ever turned tail and apologized for being a liberal (like some of his ersthwhile allies did); he certainly did not embrace his new “friends” on the Right in any meaningful way. He was cocksure, inscrutable and resolute to the end; if he was a big pig-headed at times, in my estimation he was never opportunistic or craven. How many legit famous people can we say that about?

The best way to compliment a person for the life they lived is how they choose to die.

That seems to cute by half, but I can’t think of a better way to put it. Of course, few of us have the opportunity to choose how, or when, we die. For the unfortunate folks who contend with cancer, the choice is made for us. The true measure of the courage of one’s convictions is how those convictions hold up under duress. Hitchens promised he would never “find” religion once he was diagnosed with what turned out to be the ailment that took him out. True to his word, as usual, as ever, he was unflinching to the end, even as the hideous disease made him emaciated, weak and fried inside-out. (A bit more on how that happens, here.) True to his nature, he not only refused to give quarter, he took every opportunity to reiterate the feelings he had about all-things religious. (A bit more on that, here.)

People who live the right way are living lessons on how to exist, aspire and inevitably, to perish. Hitchens, through his example, will remain a vivid and unquenchable exhibit for how to suck the marrow out of this life, as Thoreau admonished us to do. The mind-boggling body of work he leaves behind will ensure that this world is never without him. Which, in the final analysis is a relief, because the world is already a poorer place without further input from this unbowed, inimitable piece of work.

Share