On the Road: With Drugs!

When I was eight or nine, my family drove from RI to Chicago to visit my aunt.  We spent a night at a motel on the way and swim in the pool after dark.  It is one of the few pleasant family adventures I remember from childhood.  A while ago I was talking about the trip with my mother, and I said it must have been a difficult ride with three young boys in the back seat.

No, my mother said, It wasn’t.  We gave you drugs to keep you quiet.

Suddenly I understood.  During the trip, the story I was reading in the back of the car slowly became infiltrated with hallucinations.  One of the characters in the book – a Friar Tuck like character – had been scalped by Indians but was still alive and discussing the scalping with a pair of brothers, the Hardy Boys perhaps (I collected Hardy Boys books).  I was a presence in the hallucination as well, interacting with the other characters.  I remember thinking, ‘I’ve never read a book like this before!’  It was so vivid, so violent, so strange.  Since I remember feeling nauseous on the trip, I don’t doubt that my mother fed us some kind of opiate.

My mother’s revelation also made me understand – in a way I never had before – how vulnerable children are.  Your parents could give tyou rat poison and you would gulp it down.

A Taste of Old New York

I was walking down the street in Bburg talking to my mom on the cell phone.  She’d had a tough week: my father was being dastardly once again and my hippie brother had freaked out and verbally assaulted her.  So I was telling her that she was of course the best mom ever, and nothing could change that, when a skinny junkie Latino panhandler at the subway entrance lurched at me with his hand out.

Give me some change, he demanded.

Sorry, I said as I stepped around him, I’m very busy.

That’s okay, he said, but changed his mind.

It’s not okay, he said bitterly, You don’t need to act like that.  I got change of my own, asshole.  Don’t come by with an attitude.

As I was already in emotional overdrive thinking about the good kicking my hippie brother so richly deserved, this was all the added stimulus I needed.  I stopped and put down the phone.

I will come over there, I said, And knock your teeth out of the back of your head.

Oh yeah, he said, Oh yeah? 

In five seconds flat, I said.

Well come on, he said, as I flipped him off and started walking away. 

Come on, he repeated, I got a chain.  Why are you walking away? I got a chain.

With that he picked up a lead pipe leaned against the side of the subway entrance and swung it around.

I got a chain, he said.  But he didn’t have a chain.  He had a pipe.  What’s in a name?  A section of lead pipe is still pipe, no matter what you call it.  Maybe the chain was in his pocket.

I stopped again and considered taking the pipe away from him and bouncing him down the subway stairs.  But my mom was on the phone, and even if she wasn’t, I didn’t have much to gain from fisticuffs with a junkie.  In fact, I’d just read an article about another boxer who’d killed a man in bar fight with one punch and gone away on a manslaughter charge for five years (of course, the boxer was a light-heavyweight and certainly hit much harder than me).

So I walked away from the apoplectic junkie and within a few yards I was smiling.  The encounter reminded me of those I so often wittnessed on the streets of the city when I first came here more than twenty years ago.

American Prose Has Lost Its Balls

 So I have this book reviewer job and I must have reviewed some forty books or so in the last year, and I’ve noticed something interesting.

Most new books suck.

Actually, that’s not particularly interesting.  What’s interesting though, is HOW they suck.  And HOW is that the prose, for the most part, lacks any sort of vigor.   It’s tepid, professional at best, and infinitely dull.

Admittedly, in my job, I don’t get the best books to review.  Or the ones from the biggest houses anyway.  For a long time, I thought I would never read a good new book, but recently, I’ve read two.  Two memoirs, one by a former heroin addict, the second by a redneck painter.  They’re not great books, but they’re good.  And both by people who aren’t pros.

What this says, to me, is that the mechanism by which people become writers in the contemporary U.S.A. is flawed.  That becoming a professional writer involves playing the game, getting an MFA, an agent, a book contract.  And that the skills that allow one to follow this path are for the most part inimical to writing well.  The upper-middle class people who can play the game aren’t writers by the time they finish playing it.

It’s not a coincidence that the two books I’ve enjoyed, the ones with a real physicality to the prose, were written by people from working-class backgrounds.  I’ve long believed that the reason why there were so many good Jewish-American writers over the last century is because they came from working-class backgrounds that held learning in high esteem.  Repression is inevitably an obstacle to good art. 

But since our country has become more class-stratified, I think it’s harder for people from the lower classes to enter the ranks of writers.  Of course, as literary culture has declined and shrunken, it’s become less attractive to working people. 

That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.