Under the Influence: The Story of My Life, Cont’d

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Q: What did Holden Caulfield do when he grew up?

A: He got a job.

That is the elevator pitch of my novel Not To Mention a Nice Life, reduced to two lines, a simple question and answer.

(Here is an excerpt that expands on the narrator Byron’s dilemma:

Something was wrong with me. I applied to the appropriate colleges and one of them accepted me. I applied to the appropriate graduate schools and one of them accepted me. I decided not to apply to any PhD programs (it didn’t seem appropriate) and so none of them accepted me. The unreal world of academia beckoned; the unreasonable world of reality awaited. Neither seemed particularly appealing and I found myself paralyzed: options aplenty, none of them especially enticing. And so I decided it was time to go underground for a while. I found myself serving the people who had the sorts of jobs I regarded with the ugly envy of the underclass. I made less money than I might have liked but I got more free drinks than I could ever have imagined. One way to see the glass being half-full is to ensure that it is always half-full. While I worked on emptying those glasses I came to the conclusion that money is wasted on the wealthy and retirement is wasted on the elderly.

Something was wrong with me. I drank myself sober and couldn’t commit myself to more serious indiscretions. I did the unthinkable: I started thinking about that unreasonable world again. I found myself skulking around the library, picking up magazines and thinking about that itch I could never quite scratch. I read an article about this world wide web. How ridiculous it all seemed. So this is what people do during the day? A million possible futures unfurled in unreal time, right in front of my not so open mind, none of them remotely appealing. There it was, I thought: it’s already over; I’m out of options. And then a funny thing happened. I got a job.)

Of course, I’m taking some presumptive liberties and the question would not be possible without the heavy lifting J.D. Salinger did to create Holden Caulfield in the first place.

My novel does not mention The Catcher in the Rye, does not in any conscious way imitate it and the invocation of Caulfield is only a conceit.

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In fact, and for full disclosure, I’ve weighed in on Salinger’s novel (inspired to do so shortly after his death, in 2010). I concluded that I was perhaps a tad too old or insufficiently impressionable when I first encountered it, though I did –and do– love the short story “For Esme–with Love and Squalor”. Here’s a taste:

The narrator of this story is reeling from actual experience in the real world, so it resonates to a young reader about to enter it, and certainly a more mature reader who has seen and felt some of those proverbial slings and arrows. It is, for me, difficult to recall a more quietly coruscating image in literature than the narrator lifting Esme’s (KIA) father’s wristwatch, which has shattered in transit, out of the care package. The question, as the story ends, is: does that broken glass represent the narrator’s spirit, or will he rally to once more become part of the world?

Q_ What did Holden Caulfield do when he

Speaking of becoming part of the so-called real world, one of the reasons the instant classic film Office Space is so beloved is because it’s so real; it resonates with just about anyone who has spent a single day in the unreal world of corporate America. More, it retains a nostalgic vibe for its irreverent and accurate deconstruction of the dot.com error, I mean era.

To be certain, Office Space, and any work of art that attempts to take the piss out of our increasingly mechanized, complicated and incomprehensible modern world, owes a tremendous debt to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

Anyone who understands Heller’s masterpiece as the ultimate insider’s sardonic assessment of the insanity/inanity driving so much of military muscle is at once accurate, but selling it short. Heller is going after America, as a corporation, and his writing, while prescient, is also distressingly relevant, well into the 21st Century. In many regards, he understood the way middle management and their underlings would be used as proverbial cannon fodder (foxholes becoming stock-boosting rounds of layoffs), while increasingly isolated and aloof higher-ups would divide the spoils and conquer their 401-ks. Yossarian is our guide through this surreal hall of one-way mirrors, but it’s not the commanding officers, but the evil star of the supporting cast, Milo Minderbinder, who epitomizes what our country has become, and who has engineered the shift. It’s not by accident that the average employee wages have stagnated for decades while the riches of the executive officers have multiplied by factors that would be hilarious if they weren’t so horrifying. Making Monopoly money a real thing via stocks and shares and seeing profits increase as production craters has long been the American Way. For all the success stories from the dot.com era, we now have systematized a formula where the game is rigged to imperfection: CEOs are brought in like exterminators to kill a company from the inside-out, and then they parachute away with millions of dollars (and shareholder approval) for their efforts.

Suffice it to say, Catch-22 has informed my sensibility as a writer (and thinker) and has more than slightly inspired some of my writing. The corporate shenanigans in Not To Mention a Nice Life owe a debt of respect and gratitude to Mr. Heller.

And I think all of us, dot.com veterans or not, owe some measure of approbation to the iconic Steve Jobs, one of the few citizens who we can actually claim changed the entire world.

Certainly, the dot.com era and the online reality of the Internet would be very different (if it happened at all) without his input and influence. Here is some of what I said on the occasion of his passing in 2011:

While I’m congenitally disinclined to join the choruses of hagiographers anointing this outstanding marketer, salesman and genius as some type of saint, I’ll certainly throw my hat in the very crowded ring and concede that our world would be much different (and not for the better) without his influence. As trite as it may sound, Jobs did in many ways help transform fantasty into reality. For that alone, he is a monumental figure in American history and should be celebrated as such.

For now, it seems right –and human– to celebrate the life and accomplishments of a man who undeniably left his mark, and provided a past, and future that would be radically different (and not for the better) had he not made his mark. Equal parts iconoclast, counter-cultural guru and corporate crusader, he made a complicated motto (Think different) and turned it into a postmodern religion of sorts. We could have done much worse. Whatever else he did, Jobs thought differently and in the process, took much of the world with him.

HarveyPekar

It’s easy enough to admire (and envy) the abilities and lifestyles of the great artists, especially the ones talented (and/or fortunate) enough to actually make a living out of making art.

For me, I take a special inspiration (and kinship and solidarity) from the folks who never had it easy, who struggled to make art and/or a living. The ones who plugged away, with little assurance of pay-off, artistically or otherwise. They did it, ultimately, for the same reasons anyone tilts at the creative windmills: they don’t really have a choice. As such, Harvey Pekar remains someone that anyone with artistic aspirations can appreciate. In the excellent film about his life, American Splendor, he wakes up from a nightmare, and then remembers he still has his job. He actually stops to appreciate that he can pay his bills and understands how much worse things could be. In that one scene he provides proper perspective for all the naval-gazing narcissists who feel the world owes them a living, and lament that the world is so full of imbeciles who can’t appreciate their genius.

Here’s some of what I wrote in tribute to Pekar, when he passed, in 2010:

And while Pekar was groundbreaking in a way for making the primary source of his subject material his own life, his life story is more remarkable than anything written by or about him. To go from a genuinely obscure misanthrope living in squalor to becoming the mostly obscure misanthrope living mostly in squalor…that’s America. It’s definitely the American Dream, through a broken glass darkly.

It’s almost impossible to envision now, with everyone’s daily trials, tribulations and ablutions the focus of a billion blog posts, or the solipsistic Greek chorus of the Twittering class, but what Pekar did, then, by pulling the soda-stained cover off his personal life in the service of art was a revelation. Certainly, the subject of our immortal Self goes back to cave drawings and Don Quixote, and only official autobiographies are truly fictional. But when it came to the more postmodern type of tilting at windmills, Harvey Pekar was the patron saint of the unshaven, recalcitrant crank (actually crank is too harsh by half; he was more misanthrope who looked at life the way a chronically ambivalent dieter regards that piece of cake: he knows better but he just can’t help himself).

To become a meaningful artist one must be intolerant of cliche. To become a meaningful human being one must be intolerant of untruth. Although it came at a considerable cost, Harvey Pekar was incapable of cruising along the soul-crushing streets of quiet desperation. In becoming the poet laureate of disinclined endurance he helped remind America that there is a splendor in our shared obsolescence.

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Finally, I pay tribute to the force in my life that rivals the solace and inspiration I take from books and friends and family: music.

I could say more (and likely will), but I put my love affair in writing for my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone (2013). While the book describes my relationship with my mother, whom we lost to cancer just after her 59th birthday, the memoir is also the story of my life, and the things that have helped motivate, galvanize and shape me. The chapter is entitled “Bright Moments”, and an excerpt is below (the inspiration for that title is written about in detail, here.):

Question: What’s it all about?

Answer: I don’t know.

But I do know a few things.

I know some of the things that make me tick.

Even though I write (for fun, for real and forever), I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); that is all that’s required for it to work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind, and your heart and, eventually (inevitably) your soul, it is capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

You hear plenty about the suffering artist syndrome, the suicides, the drinking and the desolation, because these are the things that people who write about artists tend to write about. Certainly, the artists themselves express this angst in their art, but you seldom see the solipsism on the screen or the stage or in the grooves of the vinyl. But then again, these artists don’t need anyone to celebrate their achievements, because the art they created does so with exceeding adequacy and eloquence. You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music.

I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

To be continued, of course.

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Through A (Broken) Glass, Darkly: Celebrating The American Splendor of Harvey Pekar

Man, what a rough week for Cleveland.

It’s never easy to watch a homegrown talent — a native son who defied odds to become a national treasure — abruptly depart. Even if you figured it was inevitable, it doesn’t make it any easier.

I’m referring, of course, to the death of Harvey Pekar.

I don’t have a great deal to say about this, other than suggesting you see the fantastic movie based on his life/life’s work entitled American Splendor.

The title of the film was also the title of his long-running comic book. And while Pekar was groundbreaking in a way for making the primary source of his subject material his own life, his life story is more remarkable than anything written by or about him. To go from a genuinely obscure misanthrope living in squalor to becoming the mostly obscure misanthrope living mostly in squalor…that’s America. It’s definitely the American Dream, through a broken glass darkly.

It’s almost impossible to envision now, with everyone’s daily trials, tribulations and ablutions the focus of a billion blog posts, or the solipsistic Greek chorus of the Twittering class, but what Pekar did, then, by pulling the soda-stained cover off his personal life in the service of art was a revelation. Certainly, the subject of our immortal Self goes back to cave drawings and Don Quixote, and only official autobiographies are truly fictional. But when it came to the more postmodern type of tilting at windmills, Harvey Pekar was the patron saint of the unshaven, recalcitrant crank (actually crank is too harsh by half; he was more misanthrope who looked at life the way a chronically ambivalent dieter regards that piece of cake: he knows better but he just can’t help himself).

Perhaps most importantly, the man knew his music. He liked jazz, which says a lot about him and a great deal more about the peers he could scarcely tolerate. If he did nothing else (and of course he did plenty) Pekar warrants our eternal praise for his efforts to get Joe Maneri the recognition he deserved. When Maneri passed away last summer, this is what I had to say (about him and Pekar):

Anyone who has seen the excellent American Splendor (a film celebrating the life of curmudgeonly comic book artist Harvey Pekar) has heard Maneri: his impossibly cool “Paniots Nine” accompanies the opening credits. Pekar allegedly insisted that Maneri’s music be used, and this stands to reason as Pekar (himself a jazz critic) championed a largely obscure Maneri back in the ’90s. Indeed, it was John Zorn who helped release Paniots Nine (the title of the first track is also the title of the album), which makes all the sense in the world considering Zorn effectively took up Maneri’s baton in the ’80s and began cleverly integrating traditional Jewish music into his own compositions. It’s fair to say that Maneri, though lamentably overlooked for entirely too long, was the first major composer to actively bring those disparate elements and influences into free (but still swinging) jazz.

Anyone interested in some adventurous, unexpected, yet oddly familiar jazz would be happy to hear this album. The fact that this baby was languishing in the Atlantic Records’ vaults is both unbelievable and entirely typical. Of course this rapturuous music would fall on the deaf ears of the dumb executives. Same as it ever was. Suffice it to say, jazz enthusiasts are forever indebted to Harvey Pekar for helping this see the light of day.

The other thing that we can (and should) remember Pekar for is his interesting relationship with David Letterman. The movie does an excellent job of succinctly conveying the love/hate dynamic that undoubtedly benefitted both men. But looking at the actual footage (there is plenty on YouTube; I was old enough, then, to recall seeing some of these confrontations as they aired in all their awkward glory toward the end of the ’80s), there is something more there. It is at once infuriating and, ultimately, invigorating. I’ll attempt to explain.

Does anyone remember, back in the day, when David Letterman used to be funny? When he used to be edgy? When he used to be watchable? I do, which made his languid (but very profitable) descent into prickly bitterness that much more unfortunate. By the time he jumped shark, I mean ship, and went from NBC to CBS, he was already well on the way to irrelevance (his somewhat hysterical scorched earth reaction to the Jay Leno/Johnny Carson debacle has always made him look more than a little like an entitled brat having an extended (and very profitable) temper tantrum; and don’t get me wrong: Jay “Company Man” Leno is about as clownish as they come). But even in the ’80s Letterman was too smarmy for his own good, and his envelope-throwing humor was always cut with a palpable disgruntlement: watching him for too long became like being trapped in a room with a taciturn older guy kvetching about his chronic reflux. But more than that, he was a bit of a bully, even then. And during his mano a mano encounters with Pekar, it became increasingly clear that Letterman saw more than a little of himself –the nerd, the kid who never got picked first, the itchy dude always uncomfortable in his own skin– in the man sitting next to him. And his own insecurities and obsession with control compelled him to poke fun at Pekar and act the way bullies act: glad that there is someone smaller or less successful than them, grateful that they couldn’t be called out by the weakling. To his credit, Pekar did call him out (as well as GE, the entity that owned Letterman, I mean NBC) and after a few too many uncomfortable comments, he was not invited back. In the movie when Pekar’s wife, who has a propensity for one-word psychological assessments, blithely decrees Letterman a megalomaniac, it is a perfect moment, and accurate appraisal.

Why linger so long on Letterman while ostensibly celebrating the life of Harvey Pekar? Well, between the movie and the dozens of other respectful obits, the Wikipedia overview of his achievements will be amply documented. For me, the odd interactions with Letterman manage to represent the truth of what Pekar scribbled about on pieces of scrap paper. With Robert Crumb’s divine (artistic) intervention, his efforts captured the disaffection of the underdog and gave words to the shmucks destined to be forgotten. To become a meaningful artist one must be intolerant of cliche. To become a meaningful human being one must be intolerant of untruth. Although it came at a considerable cost, Harvey Pekar was incapable of cruising along the soul-crushing streets of quiet desperation. In becoming the poet laureate of disinclined endurance he helped remind America that there is a splendor in our shared obsolescence.

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