An Old Manuscript Resurfaces

Last night I was talking to my wife Caroline about the experience of having written a pre-word-processing novel in my late twenties. I told her how the idea of the story had come to me and how the narrative had almost effortlessly unspooled from my imagination.

It was 1980, and I had managed to get an agent, who shopped it around, but to no avail.  Eventually the agent mailed the manuscript back with a letter from Viking claiming I had talent, but the book was a downer. Perhaps to show me she was no slacker, the agent mentioned that she had received other, less-charitable rejections.

I casually mentioned to Caroline that I still had the manuscript somewhere in my study, which surprised her, and she asked me to go upstairs to see if I could find it.  I eventually located it in the back of a file cabinet.

I hadn’t looked at it in thirty-five years and expected to be totally embarrassed, but as I started reading, I thought to myself, “Some of this ain’t half bad.”

For example, I think the excerpt below captures fairly well that awful feeling when something you’ve done has seemingly ruined your life forever.

In the wee hours, the narrator, fifteen-year-old Kenny Stevenson, has been deposited home by the police after his girlfriend nearly drowned in a hot tub during an unsupervised party.  He has awakened in his room the next afternoon.  His hectoring mother, a difficult woman even on a good day, has just burst in and denigrated him in raw angry hurtful language.  Overwhelmed, broken, in considerable physical pain, he screams an obscenity back at her.

I couldn’t believe I had said it, but I had — had hollered the words at pointblank range, — and as soon as the they hit her, she started screaming and crying and punching me all over my face with her fists. I was getting ready to start crying, too, not because the punches hurt any more than my body already hurt, but because there was nothing left to do. Finally, she quit and ran out of the room sobbing, slamming the door real hard.

I could hear the sobbing disappearing down the hall, so I scrunched a pillow over my head so I couldn’t hear or see.  It felt like my body was getting ready to out-sob hers, and I was gonna let it.  I was looking forward to letting it out.  I moved the pillow out of the way, opened my mouth, ready to gush tears all over the place, but the only thing that came out was a sort of foghorn honk.  It sounded horrible, like a rhinoceros call or something, like an eighty-year-old Tarzan’s pathetic holler.  I honked it four times, and with each honk, I felt the rhinos stampeding in my head, trampling down everything that used to be.  It was like everything that used to be had been washed away in vomit.  Now I was actually trying to cry like a baby, but my body wouldn’t let me. All I could do is let out a jungle honk, and then there was silence, except for the sound of my panting.

Even though the air-conditioner was on, I must have left the window open to throw up sometime during the night.  Eventually, my panting slackened, which turned into silence, and silence gave way to cars swishing in the street.  Or was that the wind rustling through the trees? I made myself get up.  It wasn’t easy, but I did it and went over to the window and squatted down beside it. I pulled the shade back, and the light stabbed my eyes. For a second or two, yellow blobs  floated right in front of me, but as my eyes gradually got used to the light, the blobs faded away, and I could see the world outside tending to business as usual – people in cars going somewhere, Mrs. Ayers walking down to her mailbox, Hambone in the shade shooing flies with his tail.

I would’ve traded places with any of them – even Mrs. Ayers. At least their lives, no matter how boring, were the same as they had been yesterday.  Mine had changed, changed for good, and all of a sudden, I knew what I had to do.

I had to split.

 

Protestant Carnival

 

Alas, even though Folly Beach is the Edge of America, even though it’s the mostest bohemianest spot in South Carolina, it is, nevertheless, Protestant.  You gotta have Lent to have a good carnival.  At a Protestant Mardi Gras parade, like on Folly Beach, they ain’t no nudity, so the closest thang we got what I’d call Dionysian is the purple headed chick on stilts on this here video.

All the same Bontemps, y’all.

 

The Ballad of Old Buck Roberts

 

 

For years and years he lived right here

in a tent on the edge of Folly.

He brewed his beer and wrote his poems

in the shade of a stunted loblolly.

 

He played at working construction,

could drive a nail I guess,

but what Buck was really good at

was downing his Inverness.

 

He’d have a drop in the morning,

he’d have a drop at noon,

he’d have a drop at midnight,

‘neath the light of a winter moon.

 

The cold on Folly ain’t that bad

(unless you stay in a tent),

but Buck would hum all through the night,

shivering but still content,

 

content because his poems would clack

from that old Underwood,

clack-clack-clacking, like a woodpecker,

on the edge of the stunted wood.

 

The VA doctors warned him

to change his lifestyle soon,

but Buck was a stubborn cuss.

He loved the light of the moon.

 

They found him dead inside a shed

on the side of Folly Road,

and in his hand he held a poem,

the last one he ever wrote:

 

            Drunk me some wine with Jesus [it read]

            At this here wedding in Galilee.

            He saved the bestest for second

            And provided it all for free.

           

            So I quit my job on the shrimp boat

            To follow Him eternally,

            No longer bound by them blue laws

            Enforced by the Pharisee.

 

            And we had us some real good times

            Till them Pharisees done Him in.

            Ain’t got no use for the religious right

            After I seen what they done to Him.

 

            Then when Saul Paul stole the show

            I sort of drifted away.

            Cause he never quite did understood

            What Jesus was trying to say.

 

            Paul was like a Pharisee,

            Cussing this, cussing that,

            Giving the wimmins a real hard time,

            Gay bashing and all like that.

 

            So I stay at home most nights now

            Trying to do some good,

            Offering beggars a little snort

            Whilst praying for a Robin Hood.

 

            Drunk me some wine with Jesus,

            It was the bestest day I ever seen.

            Drunk me some wine with Jesus,

            Partying with the Nazarene.

 

I can think of worse things

to have in your hand when dead

across the bridge on Folly Road

inside an old tool shed.

 

 

Different Planets

Someone who goes by the appellation “arsidubu” has finally answered the graphical question, “What do you get when you cross Norman Rockwell with Edward Hopper?”

Ta Da!

Certainly, the two artists share a comic book illustrator aesthetic in their depiction of the life in mid-20th-Century America, and both cast their paintings in similar venues; however, their denizens inhabit different planets – at least when it comes to mood and human interaction.

Paying the Bills

 

Room in New York

In Rockwell, a Protestant deity smiles upon a beloved middle class who in turn smile and wink their way from cradle to grave.  Even coal miners seem bemused by their lot in life.

Conversely, in Hopper’s world God is dead, and as poet Victor Enyutin has observed, the people’s shadows seem more alive than they do.

 

Here’s Enyutin’s take on the painting People in the Sun:

People depicted here by Hopper cannot just relax in the sun. Instead, they project to the situation of taking sun their rigidities and stresses, and their business oriented energies over-stimulated by science fiction – poetry of entrepreneurial world. In their solemnly frozen poses we feel their unconscious intention of taking trip… to the sun – we see that they are as though physically moving/traveling towards the sun while sitting in a kind of starship (may be, with a dream of starting a business there of getting some of the sun’s “natural resources”).

Both artists hailed from New York and enjoyed prosperous childhoods, though Edward Hopper grew up in a strict Baptist household, i.e., in a fallen world.  Both embarked upon their careers early, worked for magazines, employed their wives as models, and enjoyed public affirmation.

The first Mrs. Rockwell

Mrs. Hopper

On the other hand – and given the mood of their paintings/illustrations, the following statement seems profoundly counterintuitive – Hopper’s biography seems the saner of the two.  Thrice married, Rockwell’s second wife spent time in a psychiatric hospital and Rockwell himself received psychiatric care from Eric Erikson, who once told Rockwell that “you paint your happiness but don’t live it.”

Though much more restless and slower to gain recognition than Rockwell, Hopper enjoyed 44 years of a happy marriage, despite possessing the temperament of a curmudgeon.

Given the sunshine and shadow of their paintings, guess which one of these artists voted for Roosevelt and which for Hoover.

That’s right.  It’s a trick question.  The lefty painted this clown:

And the righty painted this one:

Perhaps we have forgotten that traditionally conservatives like Swift, Pope, and Johnson have been the world-weary gloomsters and liberals the naive optimists.  Whatever the case, I feel much more at home in Edward Hopper’s world.

Hanging Out with Bob Dylan’s Namesake (or the Dangers of Memorizing Dylan Thomas)

Each winter, our English Department requires students to memorize a poem that’s at least the length and girth of a sonnet.  We select whom we consider the best, and they compete on grade levels to represent the freshmen, sophomore, junior and senior classes in front of three judges and an auditorium packed with their peers.  We call the competition Porter-Gaud Outloud, and once students reach the finals, they’re spot on.  Believe me, choosing the ultimate winner is difficult.

I, too, memorize a poem out of solidarity, and even though I’m renowned (yes renowned, dammit!) for having put to memory veritable library shelves of verse, I’ve discovered this year that if I’m not all that familiar with a poem, I have trouble memorizing it.

Now, if it’s a poem I know well, like Yeats’s lament “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing,” I can memorize it in no time and spit it out like a Gatling Gun:

Now all the truth is out,

Be secret and take defeat

From any brazen throat,

For how can you compete,

Being honor bred, with one

Who were it proved he lies

Were neither shamed in his own

Nor in his neighbors’ eyes;

Bred to a harder thing

Than Triumph, turn away

And like a laughing string

Whereon mad fingers play

Amid a place of stone,

Be secret and exult,

Because of all things known

That is most difficult.[1]

 

Last year, I did “Adam’s Curse,” a poem of forty lines, and had it down in a day.

This year, however, I’ve chosen a poem I’ve read only a dozen or so times, Dylan Thomas’s “In My Craft or Sullen Art,” a hyper-Romantic ditty suitable for someone bound to drink himself to death at the Chelsea Hotel at the age of thirty-nine.  I chose it because I’ve always dug the lines

Nor for the towering Dead

With their nightingales and psalms.

I’ll go ahead and provide the text:

In my craft or sullen art

Exercised in the still night

When only the moon rages

And the lovers lie abed

With all their griefs in their arms,

I labour by singing light

Not for ambition or bread

Or the strut and trade of charms

On the ivory stages

But for the common wages

Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart

From the raging moon I write

On these spindrift pages

Nor for the towering dead

With their nightingales and psalms

But for the lovers, their arms

Round the griefs of the ages,

Who pay no praise or wages

Nor heed my craft or art.

 

You can hear Dylan doing it himself here.

The thing is, I keep mucking something up, like substituting “practiced” for “exercised” or swapping out a “nor” for an “or” or dropping the line “On the ivory stages.”

The good news is that I’ll have it down by the due date of February 25, but the bad news is that now I have Thomas’s rhythms and peculiar diction looping non-stop in the tape deck of my mind.

There’s only way to exorcise these voices, and that’s to write some doggerel, and because misery loves company, I’m sharing it with you:

 

 

From the Juke Box of Dylan Thomas

In my scratched and dented car,

With a broken right tail light,

I drive to and fro from bar to bar

Squandering a day that turns to night.

Not for the dead left in my wake I drink,

Nor for the lasses who have broken my heart,

But for the tunk-a-tunk-tunk, rinky dink dink

Of lovely pints on a luscious lark.[2]


[1]How apt a poem for the Age of Trump.

[2]If I weren’t channeling Thomas, the last line would be “Of yeasty brews on a beer-slopped bar.”

Presidential Fashion Policing

You may have forgotten, but ten years ago this week, the Obama White House was embroiled in one its most serious scandals: the President of the United States worked in the Oval Office without a coat and tie.

I’ll let former Bush Chief-of-Staff Andrew Card explain:

The Oval Office symbolizes…the Constitution, the hopes and dreams, and I’m going to say democracy. And when you have a dress code in the Supreme Court and a dress code on the floor of the Senate, floor of the House, I think it’s appropriate to have an expectation that there will be a dress code that respects the office of the President.

Here’s Ken Langone, co-founder of Home Depot from 1 August 2011:

I think our sitting president is acting so unpresidential …. He is dividing us as a nation. He is not bringing us together. He’s willfully dividing us. He’s petulant [. . .]

Ronald Reagan would never go into the Oval Office without his jacket on — that’s how much he revered the presidency. This guy (Obama) worked like hell to be president, okay? He’s got it. Behave like a president.

 

Fastforward to 2019.

Thank God, we now have a president who possesses a sense of propriety, one who isn’t “divisive” or “petulant.”

Sure, the Trump Presidency hasn’t been without controversy:

 

  Investigations by special counsel Robert Mueller:

  • Russian government’s election attack (the Internet Research Agency and GRU indictments\

 

  • WikiLeaks

 

  • Middle Eastern influence: Potentially the biggest unseen aspect of Mueller’s investigation is his year-long pursuit of Middle Eastern influence targeting the Trump campaign.

 

  • Paul Manafort’s activity

 

  • Trump Tower Moscow project

 

  • Other campaign and transition contacts with Russia

 

  • Obstruction of justice

 

Investigations by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York:

 

  • Campaign conspiracy and Trump Organization finances

 

  • Inauguration funding

 

  • Trump super PAC funding

 

  • Foreign lobbying

 

Investigations by the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia:

 

  • Maria Butina and the NRA

 

Investigations by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia:

 

  • Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, the alleged chief accountant of the Internet Research Agency who was indicted separately earlier this fall, charged with activity that went above and beyond the 2016 campaign. Why she was prosecuted separately remains a mystery.

 

  • Turkish influence: Michael Flynn’s plea agreement includes some details of the case, and he is cooperating with investigators.

 

Investigations by New York City, New York State and other state attorneys general:

 

  • Tax case: In the wake of an N.Y. Times investigation that found Trump had benefited from more than $400 million in tax schemes, city officials said they were investigating Trump’s tax payments, as did the New York State Tax Department.

 

  • The Trump Foundation

 

  • Emoluments lawsuit: The attorneys general for Maryland and D.C. sent out subpoenas earlier this month for Trump Organization and hotel financial records relating to their lawsuit that the president is in breach of the “Emoluments Clause” of the Constitution, which appears to prohibit the president from accepting payments from foreign powers while in office.[1]

 

Oh yeah, and that business about paying off the Playboy model and the porn star with campaign funds.  But, come on, nitpicking.

I dare you find me a photograph of President Trump in the Oval Office without a coat and tie and label pin.  I dare you!

1545044203769



[1]Via Garrett M. Graff of Axios.

Late Empire Un-Fun: Superbowls

If ever an event exists that epitomizes this Late Empire decadence, it is the Super Bowl, the trashy teenage illegitimate daughter of Walt Disney and Joan Rivers.

First, there’s the obscenity of the salaries of these gladiators who essentially entertain us through ritualistic war, a string of overhyped “battles,” each becoming less memorable as the Roman numerals march on to Super Bowl oblivion. Admittedly,  it can be fun to watch these impressive specimens of predatory machismo smash into one another, sidestep tackles, propel perfect spirals, and make acrobatic diving fingertip grabs (though their inability to master the snap count can become tedious), but you can’t help but wonder if the over-compensation for these essentially physical skills is indicative of some sort of skewed cultural atavism that harkens back to Spartacus.  Why, for example, does the secondary coach of the Baltimore Ravens, whoever he is, earn considerably more per annum than Pulitzer winning novelist Richard Ford?  Not to mention Deion Sanders[1] whose career earnings undoubtedly dwarf Cormac McCarthy’s, Toni Morrison’s, and Philip Roth’s combined?

Because our priorities are fucked-up perhaps?

Can you guess which house belongs to Deion Sanders and which to Robert Frost?

Second, there’s the Roman circus of the halftime show, which began innocently enough in the late Sixties with marching bands, but now features antediluvian rockers like Steve Tyler and the Who or commercial hiphoppers like the Black-Eyed Peas.  These performances nearly always end up flat (Prince and Springsteen being exceptions) and occasionally can be painful to watch (Grandpa Jagger frenetically cavorting back and forth across the stage as if it were strewn with red-hot coals).  I’m far too lazy to research the cost of these extravaganzas, but I suspect we could coax the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn to meditate on the grass at halftime for free, which would be more entertaining than 90% of the halftime shows I’ve suffered through, including last Sunday’s performance by Maroon 5.

The Eminently Mockable Brittany Spears Passing Gas at the 2008 Spectacle

Third, there are the commercials, the highlight for many who watch.  These advertisements virtually all traffic in irony and celebrate inebriation and sex, which Late Empire denizens crave sitting in their soulless subdivisions on the Sabbath day.

What, may you ask, binds all of these facets of this undeclared national holiday – the verbal jostling of the interminable lead-ins (Terry Bradshaw bickering with Howie and granite-haired Jimmie Johnson) – the game itself, the outsized attempt at halftime entertainment, the pratfalls of the commercials?

Aggression, that’s what.  Aggression is what separates the winners from the losers, those who pay sticker price from those who browbeat the salesperson into surrender, those who claw their way to the top from those who rely on honor to guide their lives, those who smash helmet-to-helmet from those who wanly attempt an arm tackle.

Aggression is what fuels capitalism, and sports is a wonderful training ground for aggression, from the bestial grunting of tennis players returning volleys to the narcissistic celebratory endzone fandangoes of wide receivers.  No wonder these gladiators (who are worshipped in their high schools, wooed by head coaches who banter with mothers they would never actually associate with otherwise, and marshaled through college by cadres of underpaid tutors) possess Caligula-sized egos.  These mannish boys have clawed their way to fame and fortune (the latter thanks in part to their labor unions).  Who can blame them for copping the Conan the Barbarian look?


[1]I had the misfortune to share an elevator with Deion once, who exuded all of the warmth of a Secret Service agent as he avoided eye contact with the children asking for his autograph.