Barry Miles — Call Me Burroughs: A Life

BurroughsCounterculture chronicler Barry Miles’ latest biography, Call Me Burroughs: A Life, is a very thorough account of one of the most interesting writers of the 20th century, not that his writing was the most interesting, at least at first. Burroughs kind of falls into the trade, much of his first three books reworked from recollections in letters to reluctant paramour Allen Ginsberg.

His best-known book, Naked Lunch, began as routines made up in an attempt to seduce Ginsberg as well as shock and entertain his constant cadre of artists, junkies, and fellow ne’er-do-wells surrounding him in Moroccan exile.

Anyone with the most cursory interest in the Beats (an appellation he never would acknowledge) knows the defining act of Burroughs’ early life is the accidental murder of his wife Joan. It is the struggle to understand what led him to such a horrible moment that finally gives him the courage/derangement to abandon straightforward narrative and jump into the literary deep end.

Although Miles does a good job of placing Burroughs’ cut-up experiments in context of the mid-century avant-garde art movements, he counts on readers having navigated those texts and doesn’t provide examples of what he struggles to describe. In depth.

In many ways, Burroughs was ahead of his time and really presaged the post-digital revolutionary world in which we now find ourselves buried neck deep. These days, someone would (or more probably, already has) make an app to chew through supplied texts, spitting out surprising combinations, juxtapositions, and a whole lot of bullshit at the push of a virtual button. Burroughs did it first. With scissors. Like a boss.

Junkies are not interesting in and of themselves. Of course, it was not surprising to learn the only thing that meant more to Burroughs than writing (and chasing Arab boys) was heroin but it did become tiresome and somewhat sad to think of all the work that could have been accomplished had he not spent so much time getting hooked, getting clean, getting hooked, getting clean … etc. Rather than going the rock star route and making the life seem glamorous, Miles’ extensive examination makes a great cautionary tale.

When all 600 pages were said and done, what really came through, and was surprising, was what a gentle, big heart Burroughs had underneath the ultra-cool exterior, barring his rampant misogyny. He often tried to do the right thing, other times did not and would later regret it, but in the end, the junk always won out.

To quote Neil Young from an equally dark place, “He tried to do his best, but could not.”

Mary Roach — Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

It wasn’t until nearing the end of Oakland journalist Mary Roach’s latest fun fact-finding foray that the five-year-old boy deep inside of me finally shut the hell up about flying into outer space. Much to his chagrin, he had been dutifully keeping a litany of the astro-indignities Roach gleefully, yet respectfully, outlined with her usual irreverent wit.

Worse than horrible food? Check. Little opportunity for humane sanitation? Check. A decent likelihood of having one’s brain disengage from its stem in a g-force tilt-a-whirl clusterfuck? Ch-ch-check. And yet lil’ Raymond held on to his Apollo-era dreams of the uncharted void until the horrible truth was finally revealed: there will be no beer in space.

Apparently, without gravity, the bubbles that provide beer’s carbonation don’t rise to the top of your pint or to the top of your stomach. Retired NASA food scientist Charles Bourland calls the results, “a foamy froth … often a burp is accompanied by a liquid spray.” The best the greatest minds in the country could offer as a substitute was to decant Paul Masson cream sherry into little plastic pouches. Pass. Of course, once the modern prohibitionists got wind of it, even that exiguous libation was permanently grounded.

And so it went. It seems the excitement of space exploration had died down before the Apollo program had even run its course. Roach quotes Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan as deadpanning, “Funny thing happened on the way to the moon: not much.” From this remove, it’s hard to believe that even going to the moon could have ever seemed routine. Cernan summed up the feeling many Americans had toward the space race by 1972 with, “Should have brought some crossword puzzles.” Roach underlines the sea change by stating; “The close of the Apollo program marked a shift from exploration to experimentation.”

Even the luster associated with, in the words of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, “boldly go[ing] where no man has gone before,” tarnishes when you hear Shoichi Tachibana, the Chief Medical Officer of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), reveal, “To tell you the truth, astronaut is a kind of college student.” Roach embellishes, “He is given assignments. Decisions are made for him. Going into space is like attending a very small, very elite military boarding school.”

Indeed, many of the tests that astronauts have to endure seem more like ritual hazing than science, but lest one forgets, they are not being prepped to survive in the great big world, but beyond it, where the very nature of the void wants to kill you.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield explains the necessity of what often seems like sadistic torture. “That’s what we do for a living. We don’t fly in space for a living. We have meetings, plan, prepare, train. I’ve been an astronaut for six years, and I’ve been in space for eight days.”

Roach ultimately considers whether all of the trouble is worth it. She quotes Benjamin Franklin who—upon the occasion of the first manned hot-air balloon flight—was asked what use he saw in it. “What use,” Franklin replied, “is a newborn baby?” She dismisses the argument that the substantial amount of treasure spent on such an unlikely venture as traveling to Mars could better spent here on Earth by pointing out the truth that it probably wouldn’t.

“I see a backhanded nobility,” she writes, “in excessive, impractical outlays of cash prompted by nothing loftier than a species joining hands and saying, ‘I bet we can do this.’”

Philip K. Dick — Radio Free Ablemuth

In 1974, science fiction writer Philip K. Dick had what he would come to understand as a religious experience, or more specifically, a Platonic anamnesis—a loss of forgetfulness. Triggered by exposure to an ichthys, what is commonly known as a “Jesus fish,” he had a flash of the continued existence of Rome circa 70 AD and felt the certainty of the early Christians that their messiah had just left and would be right back. This experience was followed by several nighttime visions where a beam of pink light beamed information into his head from an alien satellite.

Dick struggled to understand what had happened to him and wrestled with these themes, most comprehensively in the writing of his exegesis, the VALIS trilogy, and, in 1976, the creation of Radio Free Ablemuth. Those that have read VALIS will recognize this novel as a tentative first crack at the material that would define and consume Dick until his death in 1982. This is not to say that this book doesn’t stand on its own, in many ways it is the more down-to-earth take on a very complex and singular cosmology, however, the VALIS mythos did become richer as a result of the extra effort. Too much of the underlying schema in this early draft is pitched in the form of manic exposition.

Dick would later recast himself as Horselover Fat/Phil and kept the gist of Radio Free Ablemuth intact as the experimental film that forms the centerpiece of VALIS. Some characters, however, lose something in the translation. Cancer survivor Sadassa Silvia Aramchek comes across as a better-realized and motivated person than her later incarnation, Sherri Solvig.

The thinly disguised Richard M. Nixon stand-in, Ferris F. Fremont, is a delightfully evil antagonist, doubly chilling as the portrait rings true in hindsight. All in all, Ablemuth is not the place to start exploring later-period PKD, but it is a worthwhile read as well as a fascinating example of what a rewrite/re-imagining can do.

John Fante — Ask the Dust

How is it that I never heard of quintessential Los Angeles author John Fante until now? St. Fante, the doomed Catholic romantic who presaged Kerouac as the steady-eyed chronicler among the invisible underclass of his generation. El Fante, the true spirit of LA, sitting up nights that refuse to cool down and typing madly in a white undershirt while his ashtray blooms and the smell of flowers on the hot wind makes the whole city smell like a funeral. Fante the bulldog—Bukowski before Bukowski had thought of it, or had given in to it—his spirit resilient against cops, and beautiful/crazy Mexican girls, and poverty. I mean, what the hell were they teaching us in school? If I had my way, I’d have kids read this book over and over. This is life: mad, frantic, desperate, and ecstatic. Neglect to read this at your own peril.

Paul Auster — Sunset Park

New Yorker book critic James Wood wrote an article about author Paul Auster last year that masqueraded as a synopsis of a new novel before revealing itself as a parody using the tropes that Auster is known for. Intellectual male protagonist with a dark sense of loss? Check. Violent accident? Check. Doppelgangers akimbo? Check. Check.

The back-and-forth argument as to whether Auster is merely doing what postmodernist writers do—i.e., borrow liberally from popular culture as to point out the foibles of modern life and paucity of new ideas in the face of existential crisis—or has succumbed to the greasy but comforting business of slinging familiar fare like a grizzled line cook on the graveyard shift had all but killed my desire to read another Auster novel ever since. That was a shame.

I discovered Auster a few years ago and had jumped into the deep end quite quickly, devouring In the Country of Last Things, Leviathan, The Book of Illusions, and Oracle Night in short order. Maybe Wood was right, and Auster had become somewhat of a one-trick pony, but if it’s a good trick, what the hell? The weird thing? Wood’s parody actually sounded pretty good. Which brings us to Sunset Park.

Auster’s latest starts out like a parody of the parody, sort of a literary “fuck you” to the critics. We find twenty-eight-year-old Miles Heller mucking out foreclosures in Florida in his seventh year of self-imposed exile from his family after dropping out of college. Heller’s dark sense of loss stems from accidentally pushing his stepbrother in front of a speeding car while arguing on the side of a winding road in the Berkshires.

Heller is pretty screwed up, and although characters male and female seem to be powerless before his supposed charms, he’s not a sympathetic enough protagonist to hang a novel upon. He may have actually offed his brother on purpose, and he is carrying on with—that is to say, sodomizing—a seventeen-year-old Cuban girl.

It’s easy to see how Heller could have been emotionally stunted by his brother’s death, and the girl, Pilar Sanchez, is about the same age as he was when the break occurred. As hard as Auster tries to give their relationship credibility, gifting Sanchez with above-average intelligence and insatiable curiosity, it is still a little unseemly when she refers to her various orifices as the off-limits mommy hole, and the A-OK funny hole.

Given that this is an Auster book, this strange relationship is mirrored in the backstory of one of Heller’s roommates once he’s forced to retreat back to New York by a greedy, and possibly jealous, older Sanchez girl upon threat of incarceration for statutory rape. An old friend of Heller’s, the bearish Bing Nathan, and a group of like-minded twenty-somethings have opened up a squat in the seedy Sunset Park district just in time for Heller’s exile.

Ellen Brice, a woman who “projected an aura of anxiety and defeat,” had been impregnated at twenty by a sixteen-year-old who she had supposed to be watching. Brice, while physically and emotionally understated, is perhaps the key to Sunset Park. Auster’s novel is ultimately about depression, both national and personal, and the poor judgment that can arise from being in that state of mind. He has placed his box of broken characters smack down in the financial meltdown of 2008; the national malaise mirrors the feeling of Heller’s peers who have burned through their initial promise, and are now adrift.

The third squatmate, Alice Bergstrom, is neck deep in her dissertation for Columbia. She has become obsessed by William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives; a film that examines the difficulties soldiers returning from WWII had relating to domestic life once again. Heller and company don’t have the monolithic bummer of a world at war, but they do have the collapse of a system that was to provide each and every one of them a chance at the American Dream. It is interesting that among his peers, only the vindictive Sanchez sister, a recent immigrant, has the balls to grab ahold and squeeze what she can out of what little she is presented with.

Within all this, Auster weaves a thematic thread involving baseball pitchers; especially those who showed great promise then flamed out, often tragically. For my money, if you’re a New York author and you’re going to use baseball as a metaphor to describe the human condition, then you’re going to have to go up against Don DeLillo’s masterful set piece that opens Underworld. That bit transcended any interest one might, or might not have, in the detailed ephemera of the national sport. In the shadow of DeLillo’s big game, Auster’s latest pitch falls low and outside. Or maybe that’s the point.

Keith Abbott — Downstream From Trout Fishing in America

At one time, Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America held as prominent place in the hearts and back pockets of America’s hipsters as Kerouac’s On the Road, Ginsberg’s Howl, or Kesey’s One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest. At least that’s how I imagine it. Of the four iconic writers, only Brautigan imparted a sense of innocence that may have yet doomed his work to become a forgotten artifact of a time that has undergone a Gaussian blur in the social consciousness. America forgets at her own peril.

Writer and Brautigan confidant Keith Abbott paints a beautiful picture of a halcyon era in San Francisco just before everything exploded. “1966 recalls the wet touch of early morning fog and the perfume of eucalyptus,” he writes, “and I see again the smiling people in bright clothes who drifted around the Panhandle, nodding at the world so reassuringly. Such an aura of confidence, grace and mystery lasted only into 1967, but the communal sense of breaking through to a better world was there, and it was exhilarating.”

Fellow oddball Abbott met Richard Brautigan in the Haight-Ashbury in March of that year. Even though, at the time, eccentricity was quickly becoming the coin of the realm, Brautigan still managed to stand out from the crowd. Abbott describes the man who was to become an unwitting “voice of the counterculture” as a cross between Mark Twain and a heron.”

At a respectable, but not freakish six-foot-four, Abbott describes a man who seems to be eternally unfolding himself, sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally. “Despite his shyness,” Abbott writes, “Richard did have a great capacity to let people into his life. His fiercest allegiance was to the imagination. One he felt you shared that with him, then his loyalty was final.”

Once Abbott was brought into the fold, sharing hijinks and adventures with Brautigan and Price Dunn—the prototype for Lee Mellon, the hero of Brautigan’s A Confederate General in Big Sur—he was to quickly discern that his friend’s easy-going humor belied a deep sense of craftsmanship and self-actualization. “Because [his] fiction seemed to be simple fantasy, I assumed at first that his personality reflected this, too … Richard was probably the most psychologically complicated and most willful person I’ve ever met. Even in his whimsical moments, he pursued his fantasies with determination.”

As a writing professor at Naropa University, Abbott has had the benefit of time and the inclination to view his friend’s work with a critical eye. He lauds the comic timing that seemed to come naturally to Brautigan’s writing. “To give a realistic base for his fiction, Brautigan often started with mundane social situations and built from there, carefully placing one rhythmically neutral sentence on top of another. This lulls the reader into a false sense of security … a good first step for comic writing. Brautigan sensed the emotional vibrations that are inevitable in the simplest sentences, so he could then upset them and introduce the lovely sense of comic panic.”

Abbott draws parallels between Brautigan’s fiction and that of Raymond Carver’s, with whom Brautigan shared a brutally hardscrabble Pacific Northwestern upbringing. “The spare early stories … have always shown a strong connection, stylistically and culturally, to Brautigan’s first two novels and short stories. Both writers create a similar West Coast landscape of unemployed men, dreaming women, or failed artists trapped in domestic and economic limbos while attempting to maintain their distinctly Western myths of self-sufficient individuality.”

Although by drawing on the lives of the underclass for material and inspiration is a traditional wellspring for American authors, Abbott noticed a fatal flaw in Brautigan’s ability, or willingness, to allow his characters to transcend their struggle with mainstream society. “He was drawn to the failed dreamers simply because they showed the most imagination. To possess imagination is to be in ceaseless conflict with social and economic worlds,” Abbott writes. “When Brautigan imagines a genius at work in the modern world, he can only come up with a slightly bitter comedy about the commercial trivialization of talent.”

This bitterness and feeling of paranoia began to severely impact Brautigan’s work and ability to conduct his life as the first intense rush of fame waned. His pathology—in the ’50s he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and clinical depression and treated with electroshock—was acerbated by alcoholism. “His attitudes were similar to those Mark Twain experienced late in his life,” Abbott relates. “Twain was enraged and disgusted with the state of society and with himself … until the death of his daughter shocked him back to reality.” Here, Abbott hits a tragic note, admitting, “I couldn’t imagine what shock could free Richard from his turmoil.”

After reading Abbott’s memoir, Brautigan’s tragic suicide in 1984 seemed presaged by any number of details and anecdotes. Most chilling for me was the odd piece of art that Brautigan had in his North Beach flat in the ’60s. A portrait of a stallion’s head surrounded by a lucky horseshoe and the words, “Fuck Death,” is—in retrospect—less of a quirky souvenir than a actual talisman to ward off the howling void.

The genius of Brautigan’s imagination allowed him to create a world diametrically opposed to the one he grew up in—a world that, for a time, took on a physical manifestation larger than he, or mainstream America, could deal with. The person we recognize as Richard Brautigan was as much a product of his imagination as anything he constructed—and ultimately, just as doomed.

“The curse and blessing of the imagination is that the mind wants to create an autonomous object, yet it can’t prevent itself from imagining that object’s eventual disintegration,” Abbott writes, “and it can’t fail to understand that by giving birth to something, that something’s death is assured.”

In the end, it is Brautigan’s Kool-Aid Wino from Trout Fishing in America that provides a key to unlock his work, while providing a fitting eulogy at the same time:

He created his own Kool-Aid reality and was able to illuminate himself by it.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti — Poetry as Insurgent Art

If any man alive can be still held responsible for the Beat movement and/or the poetry renaissance of the ’50s and ’60s, it is San Francisco poet and City Lights Booksellers & Publishers co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He was there from the very beginning, helping to create a scene in the Italian North Beach neighborhood that reverberates to this day.

It was the publishing arm of City Lights that propelled East Coast writers such as Allen Ginsburg and Gregory Corso, as well as San Franciscans like Kenneth Rexroth and Ferlinghetti himself, into the national spotlight. The landmark Howl obscenity trial, sparked after San Francisco police seized the City Lights paperback, won more notoriety for what Ginsburg, et al, were up to than any lame spot-the-beatnik tours could have ever brought to bear.

The bibliographical note to this slim volume, Ferlinghetti’s own Ars Poetica, marks it as an on-going work in progress starting as a KPFA broadcast in the late ’50s. The main body of Poetry as Insurgent Art reads almost like a collection of daily affirmations, ranging from practical advice to writers—If you call yourself a poet, don’t just sit there. Poetry is not a sedentary occupation, not a “take your seat” practice. Stand up and let them have it—to more philosophical and sensual musings such as—Be a dark barker before the tents of existence—and—Instead of trying to escape reality, plunge into the flesh of the world.

Some of Ferlinghetti’s aphorisms seem antithetical to a movement that worshiped the idea of Jack Kerouac spontaneously writing On the Road on a continuous roll of teletype paper. Advice like—Cultivate dissidence and critical thinking. First thought may be worst thought—seems to place him outside of the spur-of-the-moment crowd.

Of course, Ferlinghetti always argued that he was never a “Beat,” but was rather a bohemian, sort of a proto-Beat, if you will. In her 2004 book, Bohemian Manifesto: A Field Guide to Living on the Edge, Laren Stover breaks down the evolution of bohemianism into five branches: Nouveau, Gypsy, Beat, Zen, and Dandy, any number and combination of which can still be found slouching around the City wherever hipsters congregate, leading to possibly my favorite of his bits of wisdom—Stash your sell-phone and be here now.

The book veers into more abstract attempts to answer the burning question of What is Poetry? some of which bear the brand of the modern world, such as—Poems are e-mails from the unknown beyond cyberspace. ’Erm, … why do I get the feeling that one may not make the cut in a future edition? Others are timeless—It is private solitude made public—psychedelic—Poetry is Van Gogh’s ear echoing with all the blood of the world—religious—It is the street talk of angels and devils—It is made by dissolving halos in oceans of sound—and political—The idea of poetry as an arm of class war disturbs the sleep of those who do not wish to be disturbed in the pursuit of happiness.

It takes him a while to get around to it, but toward the end of the book lies possibly the best definition of poetry I have ever read—Poetry is making something out of nothing, and it can be about nothing and still mean something. Ferlinghetti certainly knows what he’s talking about, and we’re truly lucky to still have him around.