Monday, March 9, 2009

The Great American Drunken Novel


It has become archetype: The lonely writer with his shoddy coat and button down shirt, a clownish satire of the workweek. The lonely writer with her briefly sniffed at blouse picked up off the floor and the designer footwear past their prime, showing a scuff here or there. Both have creases at their brow and mouth, or they will soon. Both can truly laugh at things worth laughing at. Both drink prodigiously, sometimes because it fits the archetype of what they want to be and sometimes it’s the best and only way to reconnect with your fellow man. Dumb it down. Talk about sports or movies. Feel human.

Both have an insane investment strategy. You see it isn’t the S&P but the B&B that will bring you fortune and fame. The books & booze index.

And rock & roll can’t help but telling little kids lies.

Problem is the booze doesn’t last long enough to appreciate. It’s more like a nutritional supplement for the athlete. Alcohol is imbibed to bring inspiration or settle nerves. Charles Bukowski credits alcohol with keeping him from suicide and John Berryman always knew it was a slow suicide that he was pursuing, drink by drink. Putting a rabid animal down. An act of mercy.

Did you know that if you boil an empty bottle of whiskey for a few minutes you’ll condense another shot’s worth? Works with most alcohols, including rotgut ports.

I have for you today three drunks, one of them a true legend. The other two are deserving of more recognition for their prowess at the tippling arts. And that’s it, isn’t it? Drinking is like athletics. That’s there too, you know. It isn’t all suffering and melancholy. Writers celebrate their drunkenness as much as they resent it (in Bukowksi’s case it’s all celebration). With great pride they boast of an insane night of drinking. Writers and readers alike, trade stories of the great ones’ drinking bouts. It reeks of frat house nonsense and yet even the most sophisticated company enjoys a rousing tale of drunkenness. They’re like war stories, being told by soldiers still marching. Even more like a war story, the drunk loves to celebrate their comrades as well. It was just he and I and a bottle of port as the only drop left in the house. We had drank it all. All of the others were gone now, but not forgotten. They fought hard. We all ran through a lot of booze together. They did well, I said somewhat sadly. We were just better than they. Swinging dicks, you know. This last bottle wouldn't beat the likes of we two hardy stalwarts.

God, did Monday hurt.

These three writers are not meant to exemplify, though I believe they do. Like all things on the Devil’s Accountant, there is an activism of sorts at work. Bukowksi is here because of his being a paragon of alcoholism. The other two, Exley and Berryman are here because 1) In Exley’s case I think he has written a profound masterpiece and does not receive the readership that lesser proclaimed novels receive and 2) Berryman’s novel is a remarkable footnote that stands up beside his more commonly read (and brilliant) poetry.

So let’s begin.

A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley. Vintage Contemporaries. ISBN: 9780679720768. 385pp. $14.95 (used copies should be available). Buy it here and support The Devil’s Accountant.

Invariably I arrived there between eight and nine, squeezed my way among the blue blazers at the bar, ordered a fifteen-cent beer, and fixed on my face the smile of a man with implicit faith in the future. That smile was a positive receptacle for life’s possibilities. I did not want to miss, as I had with Cary Grant, a second chance to enter the future. When the gentle-voiced, intellectual man from the publishing house told me to get my “notes in shape” so that he could “look them over,” I wanted to be ready; when the Vassar blonde, rendered wobbly-kneed in the face of my benign charm, spurned her date and beckoned for me to follow, I wanted to be at her elegant, pump-sheathed insteps, panting. I never doubted that at any moment such a thing would happen, that a mysterious stranger would remark my “good looks” and “high intelligence” and in only a matter of hours I would be winging my war to Bonn or Lisbon or Johannesburg on a mission of grave and singular importance. I never talked to anyone save a young bartender, and no one ever talked to me.

Frederick Exley unfortunately lived the kind of life required to write the Great-American-Novel. The flailing desire for importance, dignity and respect worsened with the consistent failure to be granted those desires makes for a hard life. Then when at rock bottom, the intellect that realized the benefit of such importance has nothing to do but look on and admire those that have arrived. It is a hellish pit created by romanticism and inevitably, fatalism.

The fan. That’s the point here. The psychology of the fan and the questioning of the limits and yearnings that being a fan entails. Exley plumbs (using his name for the protagonist) the nature of fans in the quotidian football hero sense and the harder to accept (and more intrinsic) sense of fashion, movies and a full billfold. We are all of us fans; it’s just the degree to which we obsess that separates the healthy form the ill.

The illness is in the starry eyes of a young woman in the suburbs of Philadelphia (the perpetually too small town) who dreams of living in New York City and having an artsy existence, drinking martinis and knowing people. Real people. People who talk the talk of New York City and work at artsy jobs. It’s in the high school football player who’s genetics are never going to allow him to reach the next level, let alone the highest. Yet he’s out there, doing drills by himself and lifting weights and thinking about steroids. It’s in the back of every young actor’s mind. It’s at the bottom of every nervously imbibed beer. It’s in penis enhancement snake oils and silicon breasts. It’s in almost every wine collection or restaurant guide. It’s in every gym in America. It’s in the artist who creates nothing. It’s in her refusal to accept that he’ll never be interested in her and in his refusal to accept that she’s gone. Maybe forever.

It isn’t the dreams. It isn’t the aspirations. It’s the loss of control. Frederick Exley’s masterpiece is possibly the greatest apology for stoicism ever written because it pushes our noses deep in the alternative. “Control thy passions less they control you,” said the stoic philosopher, Epictetus. Exley gives us a man of passion, ruled completely by the way he hoped it would be. His entire life is spent planning for an eventual future and so he mortgages his present (and therefore also his future) with his longing for better times.

The book is not without a prescription, however, as stoicism’s greatest trait is its provision of a code. A tender, poignant scene unfolds towards the beginning of the book where an institutionalized (after nearly drinking himself to death in breathless anticipation of a afternoon Giants game) Exley watches a crazy man cry for help because he believes the Devil is in his stomach. The man is young and African American and Exley can’t help but feel sorry for him. Not only is his a color of skin discriminated against, but his mind contains a thousand insanities set as even more impossible obstacles. He wants to ease his pain and desperately seeks to provide comfort for the poor man. Exley cries for help and resents the neutrality of everyone else in the room. He then comes to a realization. He, Exley, is trying to own this man’s problem. He, for some reason, is trying to own the failure of this man just as he’d owned every Giant’s loss or bad outing by his personal football hero, Frank Gifford. You can’t own someone else’s failures. Just as you can’t own anything of theirs.

This is the inverse of the personal loss of control. The success he so wants to be handed is just that. Wanted. In the end A Fan’s Notes serves us (oh so important for us in America) a reminder that we can control only ourselves, and even then through discipline alone.

A Fan’s Notes is an expansive and beautifully written novel. The protagonist is thoroughly human, possibly one of the most fully realized in all of literature. His baseness, heroism and insanity are all things that we ourselves possess to varying degree. As a literary work it is astoundingly educated on every subject it deals with, whether it’s Frank Gifford’s days at USC to minutia of Shakespearian drama.

I love this book. I treat it as a work of satirical philosophy. In it I find reminders of how not to live. Or at least recognize when I’ve personally taken something past my control. To be honest, I read this book at a time when I needed the lessons it contained, and any book that can honestly teach us of life’s pitfalls is a great one.

The Accountant is a Miami Dolphins fan. I’m fiery one too, more than capable of overemphasizing the importance of a Sunday’s storyline (even willing to concoct a few storylines of his own). I grew up in South Florida and watched Dan Marino throw impossible passes and single-handedly win games. When #13 walked on the field it didn’t matter who you were playing. You had a chance. Dan the Man never had a running game and the defenses that protected his points were never championship caliber. He was the greatest quarterback to ever play the game and yet he never won a Super Bowl.

I own a “READ” poster (the kind you find in school libraries) that has a black and white image of a young Dan Marino reading a book on a set of bleachers. The book he’s reading is A Fan’s Notes. I look at it and wonder if he knew how ironic such a choice would eventually be. The best at his position would forever be let down by others. I wonder if that’s what allowed him to be the best every year. Dan Marino worried only about what he could control.

“It didn’t matter who you were playing.” See how easy it is to lose control?

Recovery by John Berryman. Foreword by Saul Bellow. Introduction by Philip Levine. Thunder’s Mouth Press. ISBN: 1560254793. 254pp. $14.95. Buy it here and support The Devil’s Accountant.

Once as we were discussing Rilke I interrupted to ask him whether he had, the other night, somewhere in the Village, pushed a lady down a flight of stairs.
“Beautiful Catherine, the big girl I introduced you to.”
“Did I do that? I wonder why?”
“Because she wouldn’t let you into the apartment.”
He took a polite interest in this information. He said, “That I was in the City and all is news to me.”

That’s Saul Bellow recounting a conversation in his Foreword to Recovery. His interlocutor is John Berryman, celebrated poet, scholar, devoted educator and insane drunk.

Drinking can be nasty business. To tell you that people sometimes act differently when drinking would be an insult to your intelligence. The fact is though, that they do.

Recovery is language. When a poet sits down to write a novel the outcome can be inconsistent. W.B. Yeats was as brilliant a poet as is possible and yet his prose experiments are only that…experiments. Occasionally, like in the case of last month’s book Hyperion by Holderlin, or a work like Recovery, the poetical addiction to language serves up a masterpiece of language.

Berryman’s novel takes place entirely in a sanitarium, where a group of serious alcoholics are involved in an Alcoholics Anonymous program. Sanity comes and goes and the thoughts and reflections of the protagonist, Alan Severance, are delivered in fractured mosaic, as they happen, real-time.

Alan (French: harmony, Gaelic: rock) Severance (splitting, cutting, bureaucratic timeline of prearranged recompense). A cleaved whole, as preordained? Sure. It fits Alan, a professor of art and architecture whose drinking induced madness is staved off only on occasion by his respected status in his field of study.

Berryman’s own insanity is somewhat celebrated. His students (including the likes of Lew Welch, Gary Snyder, Philip Levine, Philip Whalen, W.D. Snodgrass, etc, etc, etc) remember, sometimes fondly, his outbursts and almost tyrannical criticism. So harsh was Berryman's criticism that Levine punched him in the face one night. They became fast friends afterward.

The book is utter chaos. It assaults the careful reader with one clever allusion after another, like a Ulysses, and yet it is so temporally and geographically claustrophobic in its setting that we are constantly grounded. We are allowed a lifeline throughout the madness, by means of it being located in an asylum. An odd reassurance and yet one that I suspect might be the case for patient as well as reader. The white walls and stale smell of the sanitarium might in fact be a strong tether.

The author’s own awareness of the suicidal whim of alcohol is made more chilling with his continued acceptance of suicide itself. This of course is particularly morbid, as Berryman killed himself. He threw himself off of the Washington Avenue Bridge, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He had been struggling to function with his alcoholism. He had been unable to give readings or work effectively.

There is something darkly comic too, unrelated to Berryman's private joke about suicide. None of Bukowksi’s bluster is here. None of the booming taunts at Death's impotence. There is instead a form of humor that I can only compare to the kind found in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. It is an absurdist’s prodding finger poking an indignant, pompous character that they themselves are modeled after, and watching in glee as their unfounded pomposity unravels any semblance of sanity they possessed. For all its dreary darkness, there is much laughter to be had in Berryman’s novel just like there is a certain amount of freedom in recognizing failure.

A passage might best demonstrate what kind of fare one will find in this tragicomic gem.

‘A tea party,’ he said violently in the Snack Room after the one-forty-five lecture, to Charley B (Charley R was a carroty fag from Houston. Apparently. Severance was not censorious. Like many or some others, he had endured his doubts. He heard himself seated in his red leather chair drunk, desperate, shouting across their livingroom at his first wife, after seven or eight years of mostly happy marriage and two years of depth-analysis high in a building on Fifth Avenue in the 80’s facing the park, “I’m a homosexual, damn you. I just don’t do anything about it!’ and saw her kind look). ‘Louise presides at a tea party. I’ll never get anywhere except on my own. Okay.’

The sweet hockey pro looked sweetly at him, earnestly too. ‘I hear different, Alan. Take it easy, my boy, as the say around here. You haven’t been in but one day yet. Last time don’t count, you know. Start all over. “Even faster” but gently, son.’

‘It’s true what you say, pal.’ Severance relaxed, dismissing images of female torsos dismembered and strewn. ‘Besides, they’ve put me in Mini-group, which they didn’t do before and I could never find out heads or tails of about. Maybe that’s something.’

‘All roads lead to Rome, as us Romans say.’ He patted Alan’s shoulder. ‘In the hands of the great God.’

And when in Rome…

Women by Charles Bukowski. Ecco. ISBN: 9780061177590. 291pp. $13.95. But it here and support The Devil’s Accountant.

“We expected somebody quite different,” said Cecelia.
“I mean, your voice is so soft, and you seem gentle. Bill expected you to get off the plane drunk and cursing, making passes at the women….”
“I never pump up my vulgarity. I wait for it to arrive on its own terms.”
“You’re reading tomorrow night,” said Bill.
“Good, we’ll have fun tonight and forget everything.”
We drove on.

In interviews Charles Bukowski would often refer to himself as Hank. Hank Chinaski, of course, is the fictional version of Bukowski that inhabits all of his novels. The lines between his biography and the fiction he wrote are so thin and blurry that there might be little point in distinguishing them.

For this Bukowski is the ultimate ass. Bukowski was a one-trick pony whose trick was a good one. But one, which once recognized by his fellow man, would forever only be his. His was an innovation of sorts, but in biography as much as anything else. The sea of down and out writers who have sought through their equally ass-like egoism to describe their hard living as Bukowski did have all met with an impenetrable wall. They are wannabes. No matter how much street-cred they amass, these writers are all stunted saplings growing beneath the obscenely gnarled tree known as Bukowski. Or Chinaski. Whatever.

As a writer and a man he relished in the concept of having cheated the world at something previously sanctified. For 40 years he had worked crap job after crap job, the most famous of which is chronicled in his debut novel, Post Office. In his skid row life he drank hard and received little if any attention from people. He was written off as a bum or a loudmouth. Or worse, he was alienated by his voyeuristic separation from mankind. A hard-drinking Steppenwolf, this Bukowski who read Hamsun and Celine, blared his classical music, pounded the typewriter and drank bottle after bottle of booze.

He drank enough to kill most men and yet he lived on in vibrant defiance, drinking and writing. Laughing at the joke of life. He was Bukowski, a drunken scribbler of dirty fables with sensitive, touching really, meanings at their end. In his eventual stardom (arriving in his mid-fifties) he was taking lovers in their’ twenties (or even teens) to bed and keeping up. It was all his way of laughing at death. He walked as closely to death as is possible outside of a war zone and laughed at it every night. He was the great impossibility and he knew this. He appreciated his luck.

Chronicling Women is pointless. The book is a repetition of amorous belligerence and amazing amounts of drinking. There is a different woman in each scenario (some last longer than others) and yet all of them will eventually flit out of his life as easily as they came into it. For every passage of misogynistic confusion (and Bukowski always pleads his ignorance) there is a tender and revealing realization of femininity. Everything is realized however, before the backdrop of Chinaski’s ego. I told you he was an ass, but one who was sincerely trying to figure things out.

That’s the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink. If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.

The common thread through almost all of these books is the use of alcohol as escape. For Exley's character it grants him a dream-world to inhabit with his pretend victories and eventual (never arriving) successes. Berryman's Alan Severance is not even aware of how fast he's running to the bottle and he's so adept at getting to the bottle that he can sustain his avoidance of the reason(s) behind his flight. Every single one of these writers this month (guests aside) use alcohol as a method of avoidance and or acceptance. For Bukowski, it is the way to infinite patience (to paraphrase Sammy Davis, Jr.). He was a misanthrope, a great doubter of man’s better natures, and yet it was when drunk that he could write of the small mercies that make life tolerable. It was also his way to cope with his insecurities and fear.

Bukowski is honest about that. He drank to adjust. He was scared of death and that’s why he laughed so loud when he (or his man, Chinaski) wins another round. Sure, the KO was coming. Death is the better boxer, always. But for round after round, Charles Bukowski delighted the spectators by really sticking it to the big guy in the black trunks. For a moment, late in the 10th round, you almost begin to think, Hey! This guy might do it. He might actually beat death.

Charles Bukwoski died of leukemia at the age of 73. The fucking cigarettes got him. A TKO.

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