I need to take a break for a bit.
In this post I talk about three debut novels: CALL ME HOME, Megan Kruse, YOUR HEART IS A MUSCLE THE SIZE OF A FIST, Sunil Yapa, ONLY LOVE CAN BREAK YOUR HEART, Ed Tarkington
Today, I was reminded by my favorite bookseller, Marlene, that we had discussed my being employed in position of Resident Curmudgeon at The Curious Iguana [click here]; a possibility first considered when I one day spent fifteen minutes ranting and raving about having read yet another book too-touted by the tight-knit clan of literati that I found to be less than tout-able. We (well, in fairness, mostly I) thought someone ought to be available to say rot and twaddle, and who better than I, who have found in my dotage an awful lot of parading naked Emperors, armed with MFAs and hawking Kool-Aid I refuse any longer to sip!
You’ve been warned. I’m in a mood. There are entirely too many books too much the same in tone and structure and they’re oohed and ahhed over and I am sick and tired of them. I’m not a young man. When I’m promised something will thrill, excite, enthrall, and enrapture me, and am left tumescent only with disappointment, literarily blue-balled from lack of blue-penciling, I am bound to be a bit testy (testes – don’t tes-teased me, something about that ought to have been funnier – but, see here, I am a one-man band, a one hander, a – oh forget it).
CALL ME HOME, Megan Kruse, Paperback, 292 pages, March, 2015, Hawthorne Books This was brought to my attention and passed on to me by a friend who thought it worth a read. It has all sorts of blurbing going for it and an introduction by Elizabeth Gilbert. This is a story of abuse mistaken for love, the damage and disaster of dysfunctional families, and the power of forgiveness. The writing is quite skilled, the emotions spent and sputtered are often powerfully moving, but, finally, for me, it was a trifle self-conscious in execution and when I ought to have been entranced, I was, instead, put off by a sort of reportorial, researched tone. A debut novel, I look forward to her next work.
YOUR HEART IS A MUSCLE THE SIZE OF A FIST, Sunil Yapa, Hardcover, 320 pages, January, 2016, Little, Brown and Company
Another debut novel by another MFA holder. One review (or two, maybe) talk of how good a heart this book has, how it means well. It takes place during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, and it dances around one after another dichotomy and contradiction of character, basically good people doing rotten things in complicated circumstances. Admirable aim, exploration of such things, but the entire thing felt academic to me, without grounding in real, earned emotion.
Once upon a time, decades ago, I took a directing class. When it came time to present the scenes, one student-director had given the actor playing Don, a blind singer-songwriter, the action of throwing his music to the ground during an argument with his Mother, who was railing against his musical, free-spirited lifestyle. The professor stopped the scene there and ejected the student-director from the class (never go to a theatre school, kids, where the faculty is comprised mostly of people bitter about having failed to succeed at what they are now teaching) and while the punishment was too harsh, the reasoning was sound. Don loved his music, it was symbol of the very self and life he was defending, and no anger could justify his throwing it to the ground, an action which would only have been appropriate had the director meant to ultimately give sympathy and victory to the Mother. All wrong.
For me, in Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of A Fist, when the character of the head of the Seattle Police force, Bishop, burns a stack of books belonging to his late wife, it was the very same thing; It did not make sense, the event meant as motivation for him to set the flames did not, for me, justify the action, and so everything else about him, and all the things which happened because of that, were un-grounded, false, flawed, an unearned pyrotechnics, as it were.
Which sums this book up, rather. I am exhausted by writers auteur-ing like Tarantino; exploiting & exploding for effect rather than exploring and earning emotions. This book has the feel of something annoyingly over-workshopped. One can near hear the other MFAs in the room cooing and ahhhing at all the literary pyrotechnics – or – pyrotechniquing – and by the last third I was skimming through the pages of self-congratulatory, masturbatory describings and ruminatings. More editing. Less posturing.
Sorry, I warned you I was cranky.
ONLY LOVE CAN BREAK YOUR HEART, Ed Tarkington, Hardcover, 320 pages, January, 2016, Algonquin Books This is another debut novel. Hmm. Maybe I ought not read three debut novels in a row? I’ll tell you this, I was liking this book for about the first two-hundred pages. It felt old-school in the good way; lots of plot, lovely writing, a story well-told. Then, off the rails it went. I don’t think it needed the murder. I would much rather have spent more time with Paul and Leigh. I’m not sure Rocky narrating was the way to go if one wanted the final third of the book to happen and the way it was tied up, ribboned, bowed, happy-ended(ish), seemed random and less than honest as well. But, there was much to love in this and I think Bethanne Patrick (you ought to follow her on Twitter, the BookMaven, click here) said it best, and far better than can I, in her review at NPRBooks (click here for that review).
Probably unfair to these three debut novels to have read them so soon after the brilliant few books I read the week before (click here for those recaps) but, there it is. And, it is not impossible that I, book blogger, who have failed to be a published author, am as bitter as the directing teacher I spoke of above — but I think not. I love many, many books, as anyone who follows me knows. And, I am truly looking forward to new books by Paul Lisicky and Garth Greenwell, both of which come out tomorrow and will be waiting for me at The Curious Iguana.
So, until next time kids, Love and Light from the curmudgeon, and forfreakssake, write from your heart, not from a formula, and listen to what your soul tells you, not the advice from your writing group.
Here I am, before I offend anyone else, going.
Today I will be writing about: THE SELLOUT, by Paul Beatty (library), I CAN GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE, by Gary Indiana (purchased), WAYS TO DISAPPEAR, by Idra Novey (advance copy sent by literati-industry pal), YOU ARE NOT A STRANGER HERE, by Adam Haslett (library), MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, by Elizabeth Strout (library – but after reading, bought a copy), and, as always, talking about myself. This is, after all, my blog.
Those of you who have come here for a discussion of books, I’ve got five today, some of which are fantastic, but pardon me for a moment while I speak to another part of my audience, those who — for the briefest of ecstatic, orgasmic moments yesterday — led me to believe some lit-type had linked me, praising my blog as a don’t miss, must read, savant-ish polyglot’s potpourri of belletristic babble and the off-color, onanistic emotional offal of a train-wreck in progress. But, hell no . . . instead . . .
IF YOU’RE HERE LOOKING FOR NAKED CHARLIE CARVER, SORRY.
In the past 48 hours this blog has gotten a ridiculous number of hits. “Huzzah!” said I, all a-tingle and a-glow with that endorphin rush only impact play can bring, “Hit me some more, sir!”
Now, were I a different kind of person, say, perhaps, NOT one who’d first been BDSM-ed by the School Sisters of Notre Dame and Roman Catholic-brainwashed into the mindset in which every pleasure requires requisite punishment, I might have enjoyed this spanking of popularity without regard to its residual bruising and scarring; alas, I am bottom-trained to the bondage of guilt and suspicion, a man accustomed to taking it while on his knees, and so, I assumed the position and investigated.
Charlie Carver came out yesterday on Instagram [click here]. Good for him and it means nothing to me other than this: In March of 2014 I posted pics of Charlie and his twin brother, shirtless, in a piece about my objectification of men. The picture above is from that post on my blog and it comes up first when one types “Charlie Carver Naked” into a search engine. While I am sore disappointed that the hits to my blog are not driven by people hungry for my prose-stylings, I can imagine just how disappointed are those confronted with my prose-stylings when they’d hoped for Charlie Carver’s dick, so, apologies, and please, when taking it out on me, try not to leave a scar. My safe word is “READ!”
NOW, TO THE BOOKS . . .
During January of 2015 I read ten books. So far, in January of 2016, I have read six, mostly good books, one so fantastic I hesitate to write about it because doing so seems sacrilegious. But, this blog is about more than the good pain/bad pain humiliations I suffer along the way as I worship at the altar of attractive and unattainable young men, it is also a platform for sharing how I feel about the things I read, and for promoting those books I love, this my humble effort to spread the joy and love and light books bring to me. Well, here goes.
THE SELLOUT, by Paul Beatty, hardcover, 304 pages, March 2015, Farrar, Straus & Giroux This is another of those very buzzy books, about which much has been written, superlatives bandied about, mad-love admirations by the erudite literati gushed in the usual-suspect-we-all-ride-the-same-morning-train-and-talk publications. For the first hundred pages or so I was ready to hobo-hop my way onto that train as I often do; it was a salient satire about race and class and cynicism, one after another funny – sometimes hysterical – riff on stereotypes and ignorance and self-delusion, but then, it bogged down in what was for me a plotless plod of too much plot. I know, that makes little sense, but, it took too long for too little to happen and the variations on the social commentary that had been riveting the first one hundred pages were just repetitive in the next two hundred.
Here’s the thing about being the literati equivalent of a freight-hopping hobo: I’m not paying for the tickets to get on the trains, I’m wandering and wondering, a flaneur, going where I want, when I want, dawdling, dallying, and yes, diddling, at a pace all my own on a journey of my catch-as-catch-can design, and, my dears, doing it this way has proven to be a little dangerous, true, sometimes I’m hungry, almost always I am a little (or, in truth, quite a lot) lonely, but having already lost everything more than once, the only voyages remaining for me are those junkets in which I’ve got nothing to lose — as in, job, reputation, followers. I mean, hell, the most traffic my little book-exploration-sometimes naked guys blog has gotten in the past year has been driven by Charlie Carver’s dick, so, you know, here I am, going (on and on and on and on), not likely to be intimidated by the threat of further dissipation.
Thus and so, here is another of the things about me, like I said, literati-freight-hopping-flaneur with a catholic (and Catholic, I guess) penchant for being abused: As foul-mouthed as I am, as rabid an advocate for freedom of speech as I am, as far-left as I am, the use of certain words makes me uncomfortable. I never use the N-word. Mr. Beatty uses it — and other equally triggering words — throughout The Sellout, which I understand is part of his point. I get it. And, Mr. Beatty, being African-American and writing from that perspective and using the word as ironic commentary, all gotten. But, back to that thing about me, see, I think words are incredibly powerful, able to cast spells, takers and givers of energy with lives that continue after we’ve said or written or thought them, words have the power to make things happen just by being said, written,
thought. Words create energy waves in our minds, in our hearts, in our world and so, I am one of those gay men who doesn’t think gay men (or anyone else) ought say the Fa-word nor should lesbians (or anyone else) say the Dy-word. I also don’t care for the use of the Bi- and Ba- words and I despise the Cu- word. I get the whole “We are reclaiming them and making them harmless and powerless” thing but I think that is a specious defense for using words born of hate. I think the world is still too full of ignorant people who upon hearing we minorities using words once (and, often, still) pejorative in nature to refer to ourselves will take that as liberty to continue to use them in ugly, distasteful, violent, abusive and damaging ways. We should be very careful about filling our mouths, hearts, and environments with those words, because, we need to protect our hearts and the hearts of others. So . . .
I CAN GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE, by Gary Indiana, hardcover, 240 pages, September, 2015, Rizzoli Ex Libris . . . Gary Indiana’s use of sometimes pejorative terms for gay men in his memoir also gave me pause. I don’t know, perhaps I am the duddiest of fuddies, but the phrase “buxom giddy queen” is the sort of thing meant to cut and harm and I just would rather not live in that or read about it. That said, otherwise, I loved LOVED LOVED this book. Perhaps it is because Mr. Indiana and I are long-distance contemporaries belonging to a cohort of shared experience if not geography, and at this crepuscular state in my life, finding resonance and kind — even at the remove of hardcover pages — is a comfort. Mr. Indiana’s writing is compelling, evocative, and eviscerating in its honesty; he spares no one, including himself. My (bought) copy is festooned with sticky-notes and scribbled marginalia. Here, just a few lines I marked:
Time is glacially slow in this country, but my face races on, across all the mirrors, en route to the eternity of nothingness behind the finish line. [page 12]
I’m told I think too much, and have too many emotions. For some reason this terrifies people. In my own estimation, I’m emotionally blocked, stupid in practical matters, and cursed with an isolating intelligence that’s worthless, . . . I can be whatever somebody wants temporarily, if I glean a clear intuition of what it might be. I’m so solitary that roles I try playing for other people seem contrived and arbitrary. I’m uncertain enough of my existence to absorb nearby tastes and opinions, as if claiming them as my own will bring me into clearer focus. . . . I don’t fit with anyone I meet, except in a lubricious, sweaty, transient junction of organs and holes, a fusion of raw desires that discharge themselves with two spurts of jism. The guys I pick up are impervious to emotional complications, . . . What I look for is an abridged version of what I want: a no-fault fuck in the parking lot of time between last call and the morning reality principle, and a modicum of cordiality. [page 81-82]
I had the sense of always standing a little apart from the narrative, of missing the point, of nothing ever being quite enough or never adding up. Life was a choppy sequence of images unfolding in several worlds whose only connection was the fact that I slipped into one after another like an actor performing several plays in the same twenty-four-hour span. [page 170]
And this, story of my life:
It sounds ridiculous now, but his sexual indifference embarrassed me for years after this whole period was finished, as a high point of humiliation. It was a purely willful, physical attraction, but I had fastened on Don as the person I wanted to love me back, imagining my desire could make this person I didn’t really know into the person I wanted him to be. [page 172]
And one-offs aplenty, like, “At least with an ex-convict, there’s a little damaged tenderness.” [page 228] and, “…the inbred assurance of an upper-middle-class Eagle Scout, a wide-eyed, impervious optimism that only needed a dusting of freckles and a few amphetamines to turn him into Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz.” [page 199] and, “. . . Ferd sighed, with an oracular exhaustion I can still hear after thirty-five years.” [page 205]
I share an exhaustion with Mr. Indiana, if not quite as oracular, at least as weary, and brought on more than a little by having come of age in an age where a coming out like Mr. Carver’s would have meant the end of many possibilities and opportunities, and so we internalized our self-hatred and fear, the disgust with ourselves into which we’d been brainwashed and acculturated, seeking lovers and tricks and John Rechy-esque numbers for partners, those men who were but were not what we were and were afraid of being, reflections of our own rejections of self.
Damn it’s been a freaking long road. And Bowie has died. On the day Charlie Carver came out. And there are echoes and connections there. And I am feeling ancient. And Mr. Indiana’s book echoes and ruminates on all of the angst and agita that brought him to this same place, from where we were, who we were, what we have been, to here, where we are, going.
WAYS TO DISAPPEAR, by Idra Novey, Hardcover, 272 pages, February, 2016, Little, Brown and Company I read with far more hope than I trick, perhaps because I have far better luck with hook-ups in my literati-hobo-flaneur-ing than I have ever had with men, and one such connection brought me an advance copy of this beguiling, enchanting debut novel by poet and translator, Idra Novey. Ways to Disappear defies categorization and genre. It is like nothing else I’ve read, an un-doing of form, a translation of emotion and relationship into a unique shape that is at whiplash inducing, breakneck pace funny, frightening, instructive, and heartbreaking with dollops of magic realism and heapings of lyrical prose, imagery run carefully amok — I know, carefully amok, but there’s the incongruous truth and beauty of it. Ms. Novey manages a mordant burlesque of character and circumstance into a fast-paced, page turning meme-noir of great beauty and wit with fascinating finesse. First paragraph, listen:
In a crumbling park in the crumbling back end of Copacabana, a woman stopped under an almond tree with a suitcase and a cigar. She was a round woman with a knob of gray hair pinned at the nape of her neck. After staring a minute up into the tree, she bit into her cigar, lifted her suitcase onto the lowest branch, and climbed up after it.
Read that out loud. Sit with it a moment. Is it prose? A poem? Hilarious? Tragic? All of the above? Whatever else it might be, it is gorgeous and courageous writing. Ms. Novey takes all sorts of terrifying and satisfying chances, all the while making music of syntax and rhythms that roll luxuriously off the tongue – read it out loud, I dare you. There is so much on which to meditate in this short novel, I read it twice in one day and have read the ending a few more times since. It is a meditation on how we translate emotion into reality and relationship, on the way we shape our lives through such translations, and the search for those who hear things in the same syntax as do we, who share our vocabulary of the heart. Yes, there is romance as well, romance that scars. Truly, my efforts to further describe might do the disservice of dissuading you from picking this up, and you really ought to read it. So go, get a copy now. I’ll wait.
YOU ARE NOT A STRANGER HERE, by Adam Haslett, Hardcover, 256 pages, August, 2002, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday Why did I order this book from the library? I wish I could recall where first I heard about it, who recently wrote about it, which website or Twitter-Literati recommended it, but, I didn’t share decades with Gary Indiana and David Bowie and not suffer some brain-cell loss in the process.
However it came to me, I am grateful. A collection of nine short stories dealing with disturbing degrees of alienation from the world, from others, from the self, this is a well-written though hardly easy read. I devoured all the stories in a two-day binge and that was not, I think, the ideal way to appreciate this work. One should space these stories out, as having them all too quickly follow one another is akin to spending too much time with that friend whose life is one after another tragedy and trauma and who, one suspects, enjoys the agony just a little more than they ought. Too much.
Still, nice work, the opening story, Notes to My Biographer, about a schizophrenic father on a manic high was especially compelling and wrenching. The Beginnings of Grief was a horrifying study in where the numbing effects of loss and despair can strand a person. Devotion, about a brother and sister and the man they both loved and the secrets and lies between them is beautifully wrought, its construction my favorite in the collection and it contained my favorite passage, this;
He won their games of hide-and-go-seek because he never closed his eyes completely, and could see which way she ran. He could still remember the peculiar anger and frustration he used to feel after he followed her to her hiding place and tapped her on the head.
That’s a perfect evocation of what goes on between a brother and sister, the summing up of a relationship in which one’s own misdeeds being allowed are a source of anger. He cheats. He is angry because she has accepted and forgiven it. There is every indication she knows, early hinting of which is finally revealed to be true. He needs not to lose more than she needs to win, a flaw in him to which she acquiesces, which infuriates him. That’s some glorious imagery there.
But, the story by which I was most moved was Reunion. A fellow has contracted AIDS, is dying, and the emotional and physical peregrinations through which he chooses to contort as he moves toward his end, the letters through which he shares this with his father, a devastating telling.
And now, I must somehow find a way to write about a book I loved so much I fear sullying its near-perfection by speaking of it. But, I have put it off long enough, here goes:
MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, by Elizabeth Strout, hardcover, 208 pages, January, 2016, Random House I first cried reading pages 41 and 42 of this book. I almost never cry when reading. I said this on Twitter; “No words of mine in any combination seem worthy of speaking of this book — that is how much I love it. Ms. Strout’s limning of the failure of love that meant well and knew no better, her exploration of the ways in which we disappoint while doing all we can — it is glorious. There is not one single word, space, mark of punctuation, presence, absence, breath, that is not absolutely essential to the telling, each a necessary part of a transcendent whole. Rarely have I been this moved. People, if you’ve ever trusted my lit-taste for a moment — even if you haven’t — I beg you, stop everything. Read My Name Is Lucy Barton now.”
I don’t know if I’ve the skills to say it better. I can tell you this, every time I start trying to describe this book to anyone, I begin weeping anew. Here is what the Penguin Random House site says about the novel:
A new book by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout is cause for celebration. Her bestselling novels, including Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys, have illuminated our most tender relationships. Now, in My Name Is Lucy Barton, this extraordinary writer shows how a simple hospital visit becomes a portal to the most tender relationship of all—the one between mother and daughter.
Lucy Barton is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for many years, comes to see her. Gentle gossip about people from Lucy’s childhood in Amgash, Illinois, seems to reconnect them, but just below the surface lie the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of Lucy’s life: her escape from her troubled family, her desire to become a writer, her marriage, her love for her two daughters. Knitting this powerful narrative together is the brilliant storytelling voice of Lucy herself: keenly observant, deeply human, and truly unforgettable.
Yes. And maybe it is the Mother and child angle that gets to me in particular, the ways in which they find and lose and fail and comfort and disappoint and love — oh how they love — one another. Maybe. Or, perhaps it is that Ms. Strout is a writer of such proficiency and profound gifts, a talent so rare, I was transported by that alone. Oh people, I don’t know. I only know this book took me to a world so vividly made, so real, so powerful, I could not stop once I started.
I would begin quoting from the book, Ms. Strout’s beautiful lines, but they belong so ineluctably to the wholeness of it — as I said, every letter of it contributes to its completeness, is essential, and so to pull-quote without context diminishes. Still, I will try, just briefly, this:
But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.
Have you ever? And, okay, this, oh holy mother of all that is holy, this, from page 41-42 where began my weeping:
One more thing about Jeremy: The AIDS epidemic was new. Men walked the streets, bony and gaunt, and you could tell they were sick with this sudden, almost biblical-seeming plague. And one day, sitting on the stoop with Jeremy, I said something that surprised me. I said, after two such men had just walked slowly by, “I know it’s terrible of me, but I’m almost jealous of them. Because they have each other, they’re tied together in a real community.” And he looked at me then, and with real kindness on his face, and I see now that he recognized what I did not: that in spite of my plenitude, I was lonely. Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me. He saw this that day, I think. And he was kind. “Yes” is all he said. He could easily have said, “Are you crazy, they’re dying!” But he did not say that, because he understood that loneliness about me. That is what I want to think. That is what I think.
To have achieved that paragraph in this lifetime would be enough for me. Had I written it, I could happily say, “Well, now I have done all I ever need do.” Such beauty. So many stories in so few words. Spare. Perfect.
I cannot imagine there will be many books this year (or, ever) that move me in the way My Name Is Lucy Barton did and continues to do. So beautiful. Such artistry. So much truth. Please, please, PLEASE read it.
AND SO WE REACH THE END . . .
Here I am, nearly gone, 3500 words and eighteen hours (and the death of David Bowie and the coming out of Charlie Carver and an afternoon of my own Mother’s stories and a few secrets I dragged out of her) later, my blog hits are double what they were yesterday –entirely attributable to the search of Charlie Carver’s dick – and if you’ve made it here, to this end, my end, today, well, darling, bless you. Love and Light and thank you for joining me here, where I am going.
David Bowie was, for me and I suspect many others like me, a beacon of what freak could achieve. He not only didn’t apologize for being other, he cultivated its colors, reveled in its complications and possibilities, making it clear that somewhere there existed a world in which we outcasts were not only cool, but, desired. We could rule.
He played a role in my Bildungsroman, unpublished novel, Libertytown, and I include part of that here, this morning, because, well, here it is, going.
LIBERTYTOWN, the novel (an excerpt from Chapter 9, August 2004, u no what i mean)
It was that summer, my thirteenth, when I discovered my talent – not for theatre, but for appearing to know myself, an ability to hide the terror I felt inside behind an assumed sophistication gleaned from movies, books, and those Sunday New York Times clippings I’d hung on my walls, I perfected my imitation of who I thought I might be; a scathing wit possessed of an extravagant vocabulary and cultural frame of reference.
At Theatre Camp, I actively cultivated the persona of sophisticated libertine and I played the character with aplomb. It was my signal achievement of the summer, becoming someone I had never been, seemingly at ease and intimidating to both the other students and the staff. Unaccustomed as I was to being thought cool, interesting, urbane, or – most of all – dangerous, I embraced it with vigor and encouraged the myth.
The camp was at a college on the fringe of Baltimore an hour from Libertytown, and of the one hundred or so students attending ranging in age from thirteen to forty-something, only six of us were “dormers“, residing on campus, the others were all local. This resulted in we male theatre dormers, of which there were exactly two, being housed amongst summer students from other programs, most of whom were football players struggling to maintain eligibility. The night we resident campers arrived we were herded to the theatre building for a meeting where we were told the rules which consisted of no underage drinking and no drug use. It was a simpler time, much less fearful, and the notion now of a group of thirteen to sixteen year olds being given such unsupervised freedom would be actionable in most states. After the brief lecture, we were handed our meal tickets and given a tour of the areas of campus we’d need to know, ending back at the theatre building where we were seated and told to wait for our leader.
Lavinia Kazakh swept into the room, bellowing a bravura “Welcome fellow explorers and adventurers in the performing arts. “ She was a prematurely gray thirty-something fast riser in the department who’d begrudgingly taken on the summer program. Soon enough she would label many of us in that room “dilettantes and hobbyists,” but that night, Lavinia hid her frustration that we were children, or, worse, untalented children, by lighting lavender candles and patchouli incense and forcing us all into a cross-legged floor sit, hand holding circle in the center of which she stood – or, rather, twirled and posed and gesticulated as she bestowed upon we humble disciples forty-five minutes of imperious oration on the importance of the bohemian artist in the world, and the pride we should take in being considered “malcontents of unconventional stripe.” It soon enough became clear she did not mean this incited swagger to extend to questioning her superciliousness nor the benefit of spending hours pretending to be a piece of frying bacon, or chatting with trees. However, at the introductory session, she had not yet been disabused of her vision of how grateful we would all be to worship at her mime instructor feet.
When Lavinia finished her reception shtick she encouraged us, well – encourage is perhaps not quite strong enough a word – she demanded we proud malcontents begin to familiarize ourselves with the souls of our fellow adventurers, at which point I was approached by Carrie and Stash, both clad in safety-pinned adorned, torn garments of black and purple, the kind of painfully hip deviant poseurs who might appreciate my Earth shoes and erudition in ways my hometown peers could not, the faux-punk-Beat generation-cum-Bloomsbury/Algonquin-Studio 54 cohort I had always dreamed of befriending. Carrie, who looked like David Bowie with Joni Mitchell-long blonde hair, wore cooly her heroin addict thin frame, and impenetrable sneer of disappointment, was the speaker.
“We can tell you saw through that too. She’s so full of shit. We love fags. You are a fag, whether you know it or not. I’m infallible about these things.”
“She is,” Stash agreed, more personable but less well-kempt, she disdained personal hygiene in a misinterpretation that Patti Smith’s rats-nest hair implied a distaste for bathing, deodorant, and other modern ablutions. “She’s Carrie and I’m Stash, which is, alas, not about drugs, but short for Anastasia. My parents. Dicks. Russian. Stupid name. Anyway, you are a total fag, right?”
It was the first time in my life where the secret I’d never spoken seemed it might be a plus. I leapt.
“Yeah, I’m a total fag.”
The liberation of that utterance is still difficult to describe; the lifting of the weight as they came from me sounding, as they did, so guilelessly true, unpracticed, natural, was as if I had never before actually taken a deep breath. The feelings, urges, and shameful lusts I had tried completely without success to hide but which clearly shone brightly enough to invite the name calling and locker tossings to which I had been regularly subjected throughout my life were now an asset; there was such a throwing off of chains and fear when at last I was able, out loud, to not just own, but celebrate them. I immediately became a new person.
“Goddammit I wish I had a dick so I could be a fag.” Stash, with her kohled eyes, ravishing cheekbones, and bountiful breasts was the least androgynous of we three, who had become in those moments, what Lavinia would later call “the unholy trinity.” I continued my development of the new Parker character, taking my improvisatory cues from Stash.
“Not with those tits. You don’t look like a dyke either.”
“No. Fuck all. I’ve done some diving but I’m totally into dick.”
“Yeah. A day without dick is like a day without …”
“Dope.” Carrie was back into what I would later realize was likely no less a fabricated confession of personal revelation than were my own that summer. “You got any on you?”
“Shit, no. I didn’t bring any. You?”
“Fuck all. Nazi parents checked our bags. They sent us here to the gulag to get us away from all that. Like goddam theatre camp isn’t gonna be all about drugs.”
“And dick. I hope.” And I did. Though I had not yet touched a dick other than my own, though I had spent my life attempting to subsume my desire to do so, within five minutes of meeting Stash and Carrie, I had debuted fully formed the Parker appropriated from the ether of movies, books, media, and my imaginings. He had – clearly – been around the block, perhaps even, worked it. Without hesitation I’d shed who I’d been, the naïve Catholic boy, the unpopular, petrified pussy and become a proud, out bohemian Sissy.
We made our way back to the dorms, where we inaugurated what became our nightly posing as nodded-out junkies, nearly incapable of lifting our heads or coherent speech, a ritual of worshipping at the altar of Carrie’s collection of Bowie albums played on her fold-up stereo at volumes and in enforced isolation meant to alienate us from the three remaining residents; Betsy, a curly red headed white girl from California with “connections in the biz”, Lisa, an ingénue already on the wane and my first exposure to bulimic-anorexics, and the other male, Abe, “a Manhattan Jew,” as he liked to say, whose parents had – for reasons that were soon all too clear – sent him far from his home in the actual center of the theatrical world to study at a second tier Maryland college for the summer. He was my roommate.
I had arrived earlier in the day and claimed the top bunk, but when we reached our room, Abe, who had said almost nothing through Lavinia’s communist indoctrination session, tried to speak.
“I n-n-n-n-need to be … n-n-n-need to be … on top.” I thought he said, but he whispered, barely audible, his back to me as I was unpacking. I turned, not sure he’d really been speaking to me.
Abe turned to me, never raising his eyes from the industrial carpet.
“I n-n-n-need the top … the top … top … bunk.” This time it was a little louder, but equally slow, as if each word required gargantuan effort of breath and mind, as if, somehow, speech was unnatural to him, as if every time he spoke it was like a child learning to ride a bike; he couldn’t just do it, he had to concentrate on every aspect of it and so it was this painfully uncertain, wobbly exercise.
“You need it?”
He slowly raised his eyes to mine, and revealed something frightening, something angry, something pleading. He clearly thought I was taunting him by having required clarification of someone for whom communication was such torture. He would make sure I did not ask again by answering in what began as a whisper, but grew in volume as he hobbled closer and closer to me, getting louder and louder with every word, until I felt like Nell, tied helpless to train tracks, a locomotive hurtling toward me, looming huger and more thundering until I was pulverized.
“I can’t … I can’t … I can’t … I CAN’T SLEEP … UNDER SOMEONE!”
“Uhm … okay.” I grabbed my stuff off the top bunk and moved it to the bottom, wondering how I would make it through the next weeks with this psychopath. While I was, at the time, unusually thin, Abe was nearly invisible; where I was blonde and sharp and quick of tongue, Abe was dark and slow and stuttering, the simplest of spontaneous conversations a challenge for him. But God, or, Whomever, works in mysterious and unfair ways.
Abe was an acting genius.
Supplied with a script, Abe morphed instantly with no visible effort into someone else. It wasn’t so much acting as psychic channeling. That such a tiny little frame and agonized little psyche could contain all the people he became that summer fascinated me. And infuriated me. We would not be friends. I could not forgive his divinely ordained talent nor could he control his envy of my social dexterity, both of us resenting the other’s gift as undeserved fluke of nature, resentment aggravated by the incompatibility of my verbosity and his aphasic disorder.
Our second day of camp, we were divided into cutely named “discipline collectives” of fifteen to twenty students who rotated teachers throughout the day. During the four week session we would be instructed in mime, dance, improvisation, musical theatre singing, acting, classical acting, and for the few remarkably gifted among us, directing, and beginning the second week we would be cast in various shows to be performed the final day. I was relegated with thirteen other students I immediately perceived as the least talented into the Chekov Group. I’d never read Chekov, nor had anyone else in the group, but I at least knew – if vaguely – who he was, while others thought we’d been named after a STAR TREK character. It was clear we were outcasts of whom little was expected, neither as pretty nor as effusive as the other pods with their far better names; the Bernhardts who would concentrate on classical acting, the Barrymores who would focus on modern texts, the Isadoras who would focus on dance-based theatre, the Marceau’s who would concentrate on mime (for whom, of course, Lavinia was the mentor), and the Martins who would concentrate on musical theatre. We Chekovs drew as mentor a tired, wasted looking professor with shoulders so stooped as to appear deformed and prematurely gray hair, Dr. Peter Boynton, who substituted effusiveness for skill and was one of those adults who try to curry favor by sharing secrets and information with their students in tones denigrating the authority they themselves represent.
“The others would never tell you this, my little Chekov’s, but there’s a competition between the mentors to see who has the most talented kids. Sorry Charlotte and Pat, I know you’re not kids. We’re lucky to have you two – grown-ups – I’ll be expecting you to jump in and correct me when I’m wrong.”
Pat and Charlotte were not kids, true enough, but two of the five adults who were taking the course. I learned little of Pat’s biographical details but that she was gray, overweight, old, and a high school chorus teacher who‘d been assigned to take over the drama program despite the fact that her theatrical experience consisted wholly of directing her church Christmas pageant: The Enemy.
Charlotte, on the other hand, was glamorous. Pale almost to the point of translucence, with hair dyed the blonde and arranged in what I thought was the style of Debbie Harry but which she’d meant to call to mind Marianne Faithful, she floated amongst us in a cloud of floral scent and unfiltered Gauloises, and despite the summer heat, wore always a vampirish black cape and long purple scarf that matched its lining. She was all the shades of a bad bruise, this blotch of inky onyx and violaceous shadow, evanescing into sallow, jaundiced flesh, edged with the shocking yellow coif.
While Pat was prone to saying things that made us view her with contempt when we acknowledged her at all, such as, “I know the world has changed and you’re not my students, but, as a favor to me, could you please – it just bothers me so much to see those sweet faces of yours saying – using the – that F word.” On the other hand, Charlotte’s favorite word was “cunt” and she affected a slightly British accent – which she’d somehow acquired growing up in Michigan – and gossiped of backstage goings on at Bowie concerts and how he and Mick Jagger fucked. She attached herself to Stash, Carrie, and me in a way that would now be frowned upon – a woman in her late twenties glomming onto a trio of misfit teens – but in 1974 – joined in our love for Ziggy Stardust and his ambiguous sexuality, Lou Reed and his drug addled diatribes, Mick Jagger and his lips, Patti Smith and her militant iconoclastic retro-romanticism, and Jim Carroll (who Charlotte, and thus Carrie and Stash, insisted I was exactly like) and his hustler death vibe. We idolized outcasts and pretended we too were anarchists. The Age of Aquarius hadn’t quite ended, and the sexual revolution was in full swing, and the scourge of AIDS was yet to infect us, the news was neither instantaneous nor filled with parents murdering their children, priests raping altar boys nor teachers molesting and marrying their teenaged students. I’m sure it was all going on, but it wasn’t polite to discuss it. We hadn’t yet become inured, un-shockable, and terrified like we would once Phil and Oprah had their way with us. So while Pat became someone else to distrust and defy, Charlotte became, along with Carrie and Stash, someone else to impress, another someone willing to recognize the me I longed to believe I was and feared I would never become.
I had not yet learned to recognize this fear in others. I was, at thirteen, incapable of conceiving that grown-ups could be as terrified – or, perhaps, more so – than we young people were. At the same time, I had never thought of myself as a child. My earliest memories have to do with wondering why I was trapped in the body and life I had. I had always wanted to believe that I was unique with a momentous destiny ordained by God to change the world. It was simply a matter of waiting for others to recognize my gifts. God had a special purpose for me, that’s what Sister Michael Immaculata had leaned into me and whispered when the test results for Maryland had been returned.
“Oscar Francis Parker, you have achieved the highest scores of any second grader in the entire state. Your I.Q. is in the high genius range. That means God has a very special plan for you. He has chosen you and you must always listen very carefully for His call, and not waste your gifts or disappoint the Lord.”
It wasn’t until I was in my thirties, when my therapist told me she wished she could throttle the now deceased Sister Michael Immaculata for having put such a burden on a child, that it ever occurred to me the nun could have been mistaken in telling me that. I firmly believed the Pope’s infallibility conveyed directly through his minions. Thus, I have just naturally assumed my entire life that I have somehow failed to live up to the gifts and expectations of the Gods – whichever of them by whatever name I happened to believe at the time – and if I could just try a little harder or be a little better (or a lot harder and better) then everything would happen, the inevitable miracle working I was meant to do would occur.
At thirteen, somehow finding myself a member of the cool and popular group at theatre camp, I believed that miracle to have begun. What difference did it make that I had completely invented myself, that the experiences I claimed in sex and drugs were almost entirely borrowed from books I’d read and things I’d imagined? From this perspective, here in my forties, having grown into someone more Pat than Charlotte, I know that Carrie, Stash, and Charlotte were likely no less invented than was I, but at thirteen, I had no idea, and so when Bernard approached and came on to me in his overt and challenging way, I was panicked about appearing the sophisticate I’d claimed to be.
[I do FINALLY talk about the book about 1500 words in. Marked in red, down the page.]
DEAR MR. YOU, Mary-Louise Parker, Hardcover, 240 pages, Scribner
I’ve cobbled together a complex and recondite personal cosmology, imagined into being during decades of this autodidactic wayfaring, any(every?)-port-in-a-storm wandering (wondering?) and rambling I call “My Life” with its digressions and deviations and diversions and driftings; all of which is prologue to this: I consider time to be largely an illusory crutch required by those who need lines, labels, and margins to keep things like reality and emotions safely-sized and manageable, easy to digest. If I’ve any goal other than be here, going, in every moment, with as much Love and Light as possible, it is to eschew lines, labels, and margins and the world requiring them as much as I can, to see to the essence of all that is behind and beyond and beneath all those measures we use to try to tame it.
(I am not unaware the above makes me sound a patchouli wearing, weed-smoking, hippie throwback, but, there I go with the labels again. P.S. I am none of those things. Not that I’ve anything against any of those things.)
So, New Year traditions — they mean little to me. I don’t do resolutions. And as far as the Bacchanalia and orgies of drunken foolery on its Eve; fireworks, balls dropping and crowds, oh my! Thus, on December 31, I returned to my home base from two weeks of house/pet sitting and planned on spending a quiet evening with my sister — well, not with exactly, as she is having an intimate relationship with The Walking Dead, and so was enraptured by its marathon, while I meant to enjoy Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin from Times Square, so — with me in my batcave and she in her living room recliner, 2016 would plod right in, mostly un-remarked save for one glass (for me) of cheap champagne. However, despite the humdrum, torpid, hibernating life I live, and the speeding, drunken, criminally boisterous fools terrorizing the land that night (and in the presidential election process), turned out I had managed to Tweet in a way warranting a visit from local law enforcement types. Here I thought a pizza was being delivered, opened the door in glee at the speed with which my large-Italian meat-special had arrived, and standing before me was a medium-sized-Scottish-meat special of an entirely different kind.
Anyway, I already described in my Twitter TL my visit from the Scottish-accented gendarme I briefly thought was a stripper sent by friends [I’m MIRACLECHARLIE on Twitter, click here] and won’t go through it again except to say I’m not sure six days later how I feel about it: Abashed. Abused. Affronted. Agitated. Alarmed. Amused. Angry. Annoyed. Ashamed. And that’s just some of the A-words. All of which have been conflagrating in my consciousness ever since, blazing and searing alongside holiday-feels, family behavior-feels, back-pain, odd explosions of intense loneliness, many dream-visits from the dead, and many of my buttons being pushed, including those I thought no longer pushable, result being a combustion of moody-existential questioning and even more weepiness than is usual for me.
All of this because a word I used in a Tweet about the entitled-asshat Whole Foods but with less crunchy granola and patchouli vibe shoppers who terrorize its aisles, pissed off Wegman’s.
A word. By which I was judged. A word. For which I was hunted down on New Year’s Eve and lectured and threatened and reproached. One word from a Twitter timeline which is generally full of Love and Light and Peace. Which I said to the very sexy Scottish flasher (alas, of badge only):
“If you can waste time enough to locate me from a Tweet, surely you’ve looked into me enough to know I never have and never would own or use a weapon of any kind and am one of the least likely persons on the face of the earth to harm another human being.”
Answer from ScottyHottie:
“Well, obviously. If I thought you were a real danger this would be a very different conversation.”
At which point I said:
“Unless you intend to arrest me, get out. You’ve irritated me by being a tool of a huge corporation trying to intimidate me out of speaking my mind. I didn’t threaten anyone. Read the Tweet. And this is a huge waste of time and money in a world full of awful, heinous people, most of them running for the Republican Presidential nomination, and especially on a night when the roads and bars are full of people who are actually dangerous. I’m insulted and annoyed and you don’t get to call me irresponsible.”
He huffed and puffed, Scottishly, which was cute-ish, and went on his way.
Here’s the thing: I love words. I believe in the power of words to move people, to change things, to influence and advocate and, yes, harm and destroy. But, back to that convoluted and complicated cosmology of mine, I also think words — like time — are merely the costumes in which we wrap reality to try to make sense of it, to shape it into smaller-bite-sized, digestible chunks. Words, our words and vocabularies, are the garb, the regalia, the costumes in which we dress our belief systems, our frames of reference, and, as such, they are unique and individual and shaped by experience and environment and exposure to others, to the world, to realities not our own.
So, the NEXT thing: it is so incredibly important to give energy to the intention BEHIND BEYOND BENEATH the words. When I said, “If I ever commit murder it would be at Wegman’s” – I meant;
“I wish people were nicer, smiled, said hello and excuse me, moved when I said ‘excuse me’, acknowledged me, could be polite, and, too, wish this didn’t bother me so much, wish I wasn’t so first-world I shop here for chocolate croissants and roasted-chicken salad I think I need, and how did I turn out to be so poor, shopping in a store so over-priced and why don’t I just leave? How did I get sucked into this consumerism and who are these awful people and am I one of them? What’s wrong with me that I put up with this? What’s wrong with the world that we are all shopping here in this nirvana of consumerism when people are dying of starvation every day and we will throw out half of what we buy to eat? And don’t these people get that? And how pretentious am I in my own way thinking of judging them – I should be judging me – or evolve dammit to a place where I don’t judge and am just going. But if I had, would I be going here?”
These are the kinds of conversations I have with myself, every day, all day long. These are the kinds of conversations everyone has. Life is about examining, even when we think we are not doing so. We are making sense of it — or, we are trying to make sense of it.
We are trying to shape the vastness of All That Is into something we can live.
And, here’s the hard part. I have guilt about the Tweet. A person who claims to have my cosmology — incomprehensible as it may be — but founded in a belief in going, being, living in the Love and the Light, ought not to have Tweeted so cavalierly about an act I’d never even consider. It was, indeed, a joke, and a snarky dig at the Wegman’s shoppers, but, who am I to judge them? They were all busy with their own private existential conversations, post-holiday, pre-New Year rush and blues and let-down and build-up and who knows what else?
I’ll tell you what else, because in the days between Christmas and New Year, people I know experienced felony, death of a parent, departure of a mate, loss of a job, sick pet, sick child, bill due without adequate funds to pay it, upcoming loss of home, rejection by a “date”, on and on and on and on … and asked to describe any of those things, we would all use very different words and have very different feelings about them.
A word: Empathy. I lacked it when I used that other word.
So, then, here I am, going into 2016, feeling the pressure of First Blog Post of 2016 and First Book Read of 2016. Well, they’re out of the way now.
What? Oh, right. The book! I am, or so I say, a book blogger. Well, darlings, I also say I’m in my early forties. Words. Time. I keep telling you, costumes we use to try to define the undefinable.
DEAR MR. YOU, Mary-Louise Parker Fantastic read. Don’t miss it. Also, don’t read it all at once. Ms. Parker writes thirty-four letters to men who have touched her life, influenced her personal cosmology, shaped her emotional language and reality. These are mostly gorgeous, often insightful, wonderfully funny, touching, terrifying, and so very generous in their honesty and sharing of her truth and experience. But, again, I read them one at a time. No more than one a day. Sometimes just one a week. Because they are personal letters, to be cherished, savored, and not, so much, lumped in a great mass because they then lose their impact and become just words. And as I’ve said, it is important to give energy to the intent and essence behind the words others use, to allow time and space for the meaning beyond symbols of symbols for symbols we call language to wash over you, to move you, to touch you.
Well, then, dear ones, I am off. Tomorrow is my first ever (and likely, last ever) colonoscopy (there’s a word and concept the meaning behind which I could do about ten thousand more words on) and I am mid-fast/cleanse and think it best I stop posting ANYTHING until this is over.
Love and light and happy to share this journey where we are here, going.