On Nervous Breakdowns

Back in boyhood I’d occasionally hear my parents in hushed tones discussing so-and-so’s nervous breakdown, a mysterious condition that baffled me.  I sensed through those half-heard conversations a nervous breakdown didn’t entail the wild spasmodic movements I had seen in a documentary about Huntington’s Chorea, but rather a nervous breakdown’s pathology resulted in some sort of behavioral outrageousness that brought to mind the phrase “at the end of your rope.”

It wasn’t until I saw John Huston’s film of Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana that I got a clearer picture of just what a nervous breakdown might look like:

Here’s Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, MD of the Mayo Clinic’s website’s explanation:

The term “nervous breakdown” is sometimes used to describe a stressful situation in which someone becomes temporarily unable to function normally in day-to-day life. It’s commonly understood to occur when life’s demands become physically and emotionally overwhelming. The term was commonly used in the past to cover a variety of mental disorders; it’s used less often today.

Victims of nervous breakdowns tend to be high strung.  The term comes from archery.  A high strung’s person’s nervous system’s akin to a bow whose string’s high tension tends to shorten the life of the bow, which explodes at some point in the hand of the archer.

Richard Burton’s character in Night of the Iguana, Reverend Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon, certainly seems in the following clip to qualify as high strung.  His definition of statutory rape is especially noteworthy.

Interestingly, as Night of the Iguana was being shot,

Diazepam (Valium) was approved for use in 1963. … Chemist Leo Sternbach made the discovery that led to Valium while working for Hoffmann-La Roche. Sternbach had created an entirely new class of tranquilizers named benzodiazepines, which were safer and more effective than previous treatments such as barbiturates, opiates, alcohol and herbs. His other breakthroughs would include the sleeping pills Dalmane and Mogadon, Klonopin for epileptic seizures and Arfonad, for limiting bleeding during brain surgery. (49)

Of course, creative types like Tennessee Williams are notorious for being high strung, if not bipolar, and have sought self-medication via demon rum and other numbing agents, which almost invariably lead to more stress. In fact, this morning’s NY Times has a book review on a study of Williams, Hemingway, Cheever, Fitzgerald,  John Berryman, and Raymond Carver as rummies, a book I intend to check out.


illustration by John Cuneo

The 12-Step people claim that there can be no cure for substance abuse except through a religious belief of some sort, whether it be as stringent as Hasidim Judaism or as vague as Steve Earle’s “I know there’s a God, and He ain’t me.”

Alas, however, the path to Enlightenment is much longer than that trip to the liquor cabinet.

The Bluegrass Blues

Click the grey arrow above for sound.


Banjos make me blue.  There’s

pain in that frenetic pickin’

fueled by moonshine and misfortune,


pain that goes all the way back to Ireland,

black potatoes and fickle lasses,

the death of lovers or worse.


Fiddling can get downright dolorous, too,

that high lonesome keening,

the breakneck pace


the manic flipside of poverty.

Saturday night

shouting on the hills of glory


but returning to the shack

to find the chickens dead

and Pretty Polly’s tearstained letter.


Picture Shelley plucking a banjo,

Shelley in one of those silk

two-toned cowboy shirts


singing through his nose

about how the saddest songs

end up being the sweetest,


a fiddle taking up the strain,

a quick, pained grin to the audience

as he nods his head to the music.

shelley other view

A Hank Williams Villanelle

Click the grey arrow above for sound.

I say, ‘do like I say, not like I do’ –

“Sneaking Up Early on Miller Time.”

Now there’s a country title for you.


If you want to ‘scape what I been through –

same ol’, same ol, time after time –

I say, ‘do like I say and not like I do.’


Swap out that pint of Ol’ Crow for Betty Sue.

“Sinning Don’t Cause the Sun to Shine” –

now there’s a country title for you


courtesy of Mr. Honky Tonk Blues,

Mr. Living Hundred Proof, Mr. Vodka and Lime.

I say, ‘do like I say, not like I do,’


or you’re bound the coming days to rue.

“Being Alive Ain’t No Capital Crime” –

now there’s a country title for you.


Keep up that doping, and you’ll end up screwed,

dying in the backseat before your time.

I say, “Do Like I Say, Not Like I Do’ –

Now there’s a country song for you.


The Cancan Do Man

Click the grey arrow above for sound.

Get my cannabis from Canada,
not Cancun, like you might think.
Canonized saints in white lab coats
cure the shit in absinthe, baby.

I can cancel out a credit card
quicker than RD Foxx can say
cock-a-doodle-do, a bone fide
can do type of dude.

Can you dance the cancan, baby?
Like the poster in your apartment?
You know, a little dab’ll do you.
You know that, I know that.

Yes, I can’t take no for an answer.
I been hurt, hurt, hurt, yes I been –
Why can’t you see that I can do?
Can do, babydoll, not a problem.

Gonna pick myself right up off
the canvas of unrequited love,
do the “Shadowbox” with my badself
on a moonless midnight in December.

A can do type of fooooool.
Did I mention my Canadian doobies?
That I’m a Cancer, have eaten a Toucan?
That’s right, baby, big bright beak and all.


Rousseau’s The Dream

Rousseau's The Dream

Naked, reclining on a couch,
comfortable, self-satisfied,

braids, two tentacles
hanging in high humidity.

The surrounding flora as lush
as green as innocence.

Blue lotuses thrive on dry land,
the moon a mint in a pale jade smudge of sky.

But one of the lions is crouching and looking alarmed
at our intrusion into her world.

The other cocks her head to the lilt of the piper’s song:
tall and tanned and young and lovely –

Wait, is that the piper’s cousin hanging from the vine,
half a chromosome once removed?

The Fall is spreading out in concentric circles:
a beak plucks its first worm, the elephant raises its trunk,

the suddenly shy snake slinks away to brood,
the lions’ stomachs are beginning to growl.

The Darwinian dance is commencing;
It’s time we slowly took our leave.

Rag and Bone Shop

Now that my ladder’s gone,

I must lie down where all the ladders start

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

WB Yeats  “The Circus Animals Desertion”

Farewell, 3-am dance move; hail therapeutic pillow. Farewell, Ricks Cafe, Negril, Jamaica; hail, sodium free cafeteria, Bishop Gadsden Retirement Home.

Ain’t got it in me no more. Brother Testosterone done absconded with his first cousin Recklessness. Gotta start calling assholes jackasses, spades trowels.

So I’ve sent that old demented muse of mine packing.


Young literary lions and lionesses, the unrealized projects below are yours for the taking, have been collecting dust in the mobile storage unit of my consciousness far too long. I consider them junk furniture put out on the side of the road, pick-up truck plunder for aspiring novelists, playwrights, and screenwriters.

Oleander Daiquiris

Non-literary fiction:  Pat Conroy meets Fanny Burney:

Cecilia Rhett’s parents drowned off the coast of Bermuda when she was five. The last Rhett of her line, she has been reared by her eccentric uncle, Middleton, a gay artist obsessed with the so-called War Between the States (he has decorated his East Battery mansion with his own works: giant canvases of battles, romanticized portraits of major Confederate combatants).


When Middleton discovers he has pancreatic cancer, he rewrites his will stipulating that Cecilia can only inherit his fortune if the man she marries takes her surname, a major problem because she has fallen in love with an impoverished French marquis who happens to consider descendants of planters nouveau riche. This escapist novel features the resiquite troop of Southern cliches: acerbic cotton-haired colored manservant, alcoholic fag hag, promiscuous vampish cousin, evil Republican inheritance-coveting lawyer.

T-Bone and Lemon

Modernist musical drama: Samuel Beckett meets Chet Flippo:

Liberal adaptation of T-Bone Walker’s stint as Blind Lemon Jefferson’s guideboy when the famous bluesman was a street performer in Dallas in the the Teens of the 20th century.

In this two act tragic-comic musical, T-Bone is only eight, a sort of prototypical Tween Hobo, at once worldly but innocent. With a rope tied to one strap of his overalls, T-Bone leads Lemon back and forth across minimalist sets where he moans the blues, encounters unscrupulous record producers, sleeps with golden-hearted prostitutes, and eventually freezes to death with a belly full of rotgut. Cryptic, poetic African American dialogue, plus killer blues.

Theme: life sucks, especially if you’re a blind black man living in Post-Reconstruction Texas and/or if you’re a human guide dog.


Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)

Full-length theatrical movie: Sam Peckinpah meets Salvador Dali. You can listen to the song as you scroll down:

Very loosely based on Dylan’s cryptic song from his Street Legal album.

Señor, Señor, can you tell me where we’re headin’?

Lincoln County Road or armageddon?

Seems like I been down this way before.

Is there any truth in that, señor?


Señor, señor, do you know where she is hidin’?

How long are we gonna be ridin’?

How long must I keep my eyes glued to the door?

Will there be any comfort there, señor?


There’s a wicked wind still blowin’ on that upper deck,

There’s an iron cross still hanging down from around her neck.

There’s a marchin’ band still playin’ in that vacant lot

Where she held me in her arms one time and said, “forget me not.”


Señor, señor, I can see that painted wagon

I can smell the tail of the dragon

Can’t stand the suspense anymore

Can you tell me who to contact here, señor?


Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled

Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field

A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring

Said, “Son, this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing”


Señor, señor, you know their hearts there is as hard as leather

Well, give me a minute, let me get it together

I just gotta pick myself up off the floor

I’m ready when you are, señor


Señor, señor, let’s overturn these tables,

disconnect these cables

This place don’t make sense to me no more

Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, señor?



Local Souls

Thirty years ago when I gave fiction a half-assed serious stab, I managed to get selected by Blanche McCrary Boyd to participate in a writing workshop sponsored by the SC Arts Commission. Of the dozen or so participants, more than a few would go on to publish novels or short story collections – Josephine Humphreys, Lee McAden Robinson, William Baldwin, Starkey Flythe, Jr., Harlan Greene, and Stephen Hoffius. When we met each week, Boyd read aloud one of our stories or excerpts (she didn’t provide us copies), and, afterwards, she led us in offering critiques. Harlan Greene and Josephine Humphreys, if I remember correctly, had had novels accepted that had not quite come out yet. When Boyd read aloud from the galleys of Humphreys’s Dreams of Sleep, I suddenly caught a malodorous whiff of my own amateur rankness. Here’s the first paragraph of Chapter 1:

Before they wake, sunlight is on the house, moving on the high east wall and window through old glass as wavy as broken water, onto the hard bright floor of waxed pine. When Alice opens her eyes, she sees its cool path stamped by the window of mullions, squares stretching to rhomboids of clear fall sun. Will sleeps behind her, his breath wisping her back. She loves the quiet of light and its mutable geometry, as those wizards did who chinked and slit their stones to let in messages from sun gods. The message to Alice is, Don’t move. Not till that first stamp of light touches the wide crack in the floorboards. 

Of course, we all heaped – BM Boyd especially – heavy praise on that first chapter; however, perhaps feeling obligated to find at least one thing negative to say, Blanche conjectured that the prose might be “too gorgeous.” I guess she meant that the sonorousness of the prose might distract the reader from the story – the way that occasionally an overwritten passage by Pat Conroy can bump your attention from the action of the narrative to its making. However, Humphrey’s prose is the opposite of distracting. The auditory patterns of her sentences provide a sort of soundtrack that augments their sharp cinematic images – for example, the perfect iambs of who chinked and slit their stones echo the methodical tap tap tap of hammer on chisel. 

Brett Lott makes a similar criticism of Alan Gurganus’s new book Local Souls, three novellas set in the fictional North Carolina town of Falls, one of the featured locales of Gurganus’s wonderful first novel The Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All. Brett Lott contends that “too often [Gurganus’s] sentences become cryptically twisted, sacrificing sense for sound” as “he strain[s] to make sure we know he hasn’t lost his Southern touch.” Lott goes on to complain, “The effect is that while the language juggles for us center stage, the drama here — and there’s plenty of it — becomes subservient, eclipsed by the earnest regionalism of it all.”

Certainly, Lott isn’t talking about the prose of the first novella, “Fear Not,” a millennial Southern Gothic page turner that features decapitation, pedophilia, and incest in the Age of “Goggling” and “JPEGs.” Framed by a prologue “Overture” and an epilogue “Curtains Down,” the narrative is the “novellaization” of a strange and perverse local tragedy. Attending a high school production of Sweeney Todd featuring his goddaughter, a writer, “becalmed and itchy between novels,” finds himself seated between his “dearest friend and two hot strangers.”

After the play, his friend tells him about the couple, who might well have been the bastard great great grandchildren of Miss Emily Grierson and Homer Barron. The novelist decides to take on dramatizing the story, “swear[ing] to God at least 81% of it is true.”

Here, is the fifth paragraph of his rendering of the couple’s history:

And visible from this pastel beach, a weekend captain of one twenty-two-foot Chris-Craft loses sight of the water skier he’s pulling two hundred yards out into the lake. (One red nylon towline just got tangled on a log twelve feet underwater). The towed guy leaves his yellow skis to float, plunges under waves to free his line. The fourteen-year-old daughter of the man about to die, she sunbathes face-up. In a row of girlfriends, she rests on heated sand detergent white.

In the last sentence, we do have some unusual syntax “heated sand detergent white”; however, this Latinate construction strikes me more as Miltonic than Southern (we call “guys” “fellows”), and I would argue that the phrase’s slight tinge of the archaic is well-suited to the content of a tale that smacks of legend; “Fear Not” is ultimately a nightmarish fairy tale with a perversely happy ending. The all too prevalent pedestrian prose of MFA factories wouldn’t do it justice. 

In the second novella, “Saints Have Mothers,” Gurganus shifts to the first person to tell the story of a doting but resentful mother, Jean, and her self-righteous know-it-all superstar of a daughter, Caitlin. Our narrator, once promising poet, abandoned her literary ambitions for marriage and childbearing, and with her to-be-ex husband produced a child prodigy, Caitlin, who, to echo Ben Jonson, embodies Jean’s “best piece of poetry.”

17 year-old Caitlin – brilliant, entitled, pathologically idealistic – is half St. Francis, half Katie Couric, at once selfless and resume-building. The timbre of Jean’s narration conjures a sense of tragic inevitability as a poem Caitlin has written about homelessness wins her a summer internship in Africa. We suffer foreshadowing after foreshadowing suggesting that doom awaits. Think Lear with his diminishing entourage, Lincoln taking his seat in the theatre.

Here, you see, I am setting up the part where the phone actually does ring at three a.m. By then Caitlin had been in Africa just under two months, forty nine days. – This particular night, the twins are sound asleep. I’m feeling feverish even as I dream how my daughter is just out spreading good cheers across downtown falls. I’m dreaming that Cait is due back any minute, that all will be well. The phone starts so loud.

Once again, I find nothing particularly “cryptically twisted” or particularly Southern about the prose of “Saints Have Mothers.” In fact, throughout all three of the novellas, there’s a downright paucity of y’alls. Our narrator Jean is a quirky woman with occasional quirky turns of phrase, but, after all, she’s had a poem published in the Atlantic. Here she is describing daughter Caitlin delivering a patronizing hug

UH-OH. ONE NUBILE (sic) female rests across me. She is trying to mask me. She cannot know how bones and boyish her hips feel sunk into my over-ample sponge-blob ones. She lifts the coarse veil to frame my face. It slips. Cait is planning a major hug, or worse, a kiss, a spirit makeover I don’t need. Success-oriented as any young Ivy exec, she will not be stopped. Foil cloth covers my one eye then both. The cloth now tastes, a toxic net.

No complaints about that prose here.

When Lott criticizes the Gurganus’s “Southern touch,” he’s probably thinking principally of “Decoy,” a haunting, brilliantly compressed bi-generational minor masterpiece. The narrator Bill Mabry, the grandson of sharecroppers, has been transplanted as a boy from country red clay to the topsoil of Falls, seemingly genteel (but remember “Fear Not” above).   

Actually, the narrative spans close to four generations from Bill’s father Red (imagined as a boy by his son in “denim coveralls, red hair looking like his one cash crop, probably open-mouthed with pleasure”) to his two own children “son: (Haverford, Sanford ) and daughter (Middlebury, Baylor)” and his five-year-old grandson who complains that kindergarten is “Boring [. . .] Always the same. Milk, cookies, cookies, milk.”

Here is the time-honored American dream of ascent; however, for narrator Bill, the transition from “a rabbit-box of country shack” to his antique-filled river home has had its challenges. Like many Southerners, our narrator has an acute ear for the sounds of words (and the beauty of vowels), but, do lawd, he calls his mama Mom! Note in the paragraph that follows that he’s filtering his prose through the consciousness of his daddy, blending his college-educated diction with his father’s 8th grade dropout rural North Carolina vernacular.

This son of sharecropping had never glimpsed lawns acres wide. Of no silage value. Hell, you couldn’t even bail stuff this short to feed your poppa’s cattle. Grass here meant to be a kind of moat. It would keep your white house hid-back awninged in blue eye shadow.

I ain’t kidding, I have friends who talk like this – Jake Williams and Furman Langley come to mind. They sing self-made-up songs like “The Hurry Curry Casserole Blues” or “I Was Standing by the River When I Seen My Savior There.” If you’re telling a story, alliteration helps; if you draw out a vowel for effect, you’re underscoring. I’m an auditory reader, though. I hear words when I read silently. I love it when they make music that’s not overdone.

For me, Gurganus’s prose is nearly pitch perfect. I rarely reread contemporary novels, but I’m going to reread this one so I can pick up cross references among the three novellas to fully appreciate its Winesberg, Ohio, effect.