Friday, November 30, 2012

Best head buyer for the Invisible Library: Robert Bolano

When I was an undergraduate, Mark Strand spoke to one of my classes. The class was for undergraduate fiction and poetry writing majors, and it was intended to give us a sense of what the actual post-collegiate landscape looked like for a writer today. Did it achieve that? Well, I graduated, worked in a bookstore, and eventually and haphazardly moved into publishing . . . so maybe?

Anyway, the reason I remember Strand's visit is because he talked about little but the personalities of other poets he knew--and, more specifically, about their cooking. Seriously. He didn't do this in a name-dropping way; if you're Mark Strand talking to undergraduates, the gravity of your own name suffices. Rather, he simply talked, personably and casually, about what the poets he knew were like as people, and what it was like to sit down with them to dinner. It was strange, unexpected, and close to wonderful.

That class came to mind this week as I was reading the newly published unfinished novel by Roberto Bolano, Woes of the True Policeman. Like nearly all Bolano, it's an odd book, melding styles of narration and interests and emphases into a whole that never quite coheres but convinces despite (or perhaps even because of) the lack of coherence. The book brings back a character from 2666, fading literature professor Oscar Amalfitano, and the chapter that reminded me of Strand is titled "Notes from a Class in Contemporary Literature: The Role of the Poet." A taste:
Happiest: Garcia Lorca

Most tormented: Celan. Or Trakl, according to others, though there are some who claim that the honors go to the Latin American poets killed in the insurrections of the '60s and '70s. And there are those who say: Hart Crane.

. . . .

Best deathbed companion: Ernesto Cardenal

Best movie companion: Elizabeth Bishop, Berrigan, Ted Hughes, Jose Emilio Pacheco

Most fun: Borges and Nicanor Parra. Others: Richard Brautigan, Gary Snyder.

Most clearsighted: Martin Adan.

Least desirable as a literature professor: Charles Olson.*

Most desirable as a literature professor, though only in short bursts: Ezra Pound.

Most desirable as a literature professor for all eternity: Borges.
Such fun, no? And a reminder that, for all the horror and violence in his books, Bolano had a playful sense of humor. If we'd read all his books before The Savage Detectives burst on the English-language scene, which most of us hadn't, we might not have been so surprised by the deliberately dumb jokes of its final pages. And Bolano also had the teenage boy's love of lists and pointless argument, seen here and in the lists and lists of poets and bullfighters in The Savage Detectives.

Those qualities also come through in his essays, which tend to be much closer to provocations than they are arguments. The one collection that's been published in English, Between Parentheses, is full of statements about writers and books being the best or the worst or the only, the kind of thing we say to friends when we're flushed with enthusiasm and caught up in the experience of first encountering a new writer. To take just a few, here he is, for example, on Latin America itself:
We have the worst politicians in the world, the worst capitalists in the world, the worst writers in the world.
Or on Jose Donoso:
To say that he's the best Chilean novelist of the century is to insult him.
And on and on. Bolano's essays are great fun, but they don't leave you feeling you've been given new insight into their subjects. Even the epigrammatic, elliptical work of Viktor Shklovsky, for example, takes you much deeper into the books he's writing about; you leave off Shklovsky feeling like your relationship with the authors he examines has been changed, fundamentally and forever.

Bolano does, however, do one crucial thing in his nonfiction and in the times when his fiction sidles into literary arguments and game-playing: he points you towards the library and gives you a solid push.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Perhaps there's a reason Wolfe stays in his brownstone after all

From Rex Stout's The Black Mountain (1954):
"I thought you was a private eye."

"I don't like the way you say it, but I am. Also I am an accountant, an amanuensis, and a cocklebur. Eight to five you never heard the word amanuensis and you never saw a cocklebur."
If you've encountered Nero Wolfe before, I don't need to tell you that that's his right hand man, Archie Goodwin, mouthing off there. It's perfect Archie: quick, cocky, and a bit goofy.

Sadly, that's one of the few bits of prime Archie in The Black Mountain--which is the main reason it's the first disappointing Wolfe story I've read. The book starts promisingly, with the murder of one of Wolfe's few real friends, chef and restaurateur Marko Vukcic, a crime so shocking and close to Wolfe's heart as to compel him to leave the brownstone and travel all the way back to his boyhood home of Yugoslavia in search of Vukcic's killer. That ought to make for a fascinating story, showing us Wolfe well outside his carefully controlled environment, but it never quite works, in large part because the language barrier reduces poor Archie to a pair of uncomprehending ears and a gun hand. He relates Wolfe's various foreign-language conversations (which, he explains, Wolfe translated for him later) in real time, but while that enables the story to clip along, it doesn't enable Archie to play his usual wisecracking, hunch-following role. And the unmoored, unusually mobile Wolfe is less jarring, and less interesting, than expected: we too quickly become used to the idea of Wolfe hiking the mountains of Montenegro, and neither the spectacle nor the insight into character that we might have hoped for ever quite comes off.

It's a mark of Stout's achievement in this series that I was completely surprised to find my self not enjoying The Black Mountain, as no one could reasonably expect that an 87-book series wouldn't include at least one fizzle. More important, it would be churlish to complain of that fact--I'll still gladly take up the next invitation I get to the doings at West 35th Street.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Seven years

Being as it's generally taken as a sign that you're out of your first youth when you begin to scant your birthdays, I suppose the fact that the seventh anniversary of this blog slipped past without my noticing earlier this month is a signal: middle age, surely, has arrived for IBRL, and I therefore should probably keep a weather eye out for midlife crises and hints of senescence.

With the period of seven years in mind, I turned to Isaac D'Israeli and the Curiosities of Literature. Surely he wouldn't mind if I took a passage completely out of context and applied an account of a young boy to a blog instead, one that could be described as
a child of [my] misfortunes, . . born in trouble, and a stranger to domestic endearments.
Oh, but that's not simply unfair to D'Israeli, but to IBRL, too: it's far from one of misfortune's many children--rather, its parents are enthusiasm and obsession, and though that pair could often be excused for looking askance at their offspring, I like to think that in this case they're at least not embarrassed.

If that passage isn't quite suitable, even when repurposed, then how about this one, from D'Israeli's later (and, one assumes, less successful) work, The Literary Character, Illustrated by the History of Men of Genius, Drawn from Their Own Feelings and Confessions. The quotation is attributed to Boccaccio, praising himself as a prodigy while watering the grounds of his Decameron with modesty:
Before seven years of age, when as yet I had met with no stories, was without a master and hardly knew my letters, I had a natural talent for fiction, and produced some little tales.
There's been precious little fiction on this blog, but I do like the idea that seven years is the point at which one can say that he's begun to know some stories. In the Anatomy of Melancholy Robert Burton points out that, for a scholar, seven years is essentially nothing:
Most other Trades and Professions, after seven years' Prenticeship, are enabled by their craft to live of themselves. . . . only scholars, methinks, are most uncertain, unrespected, subject to all casualties and hazards.
Since I'm ripping quotations out at their roots and appropriating them inappropriately, I'll close with a few lines found in Holbrook Jackson's wonderfully strange and deliberately Burton-like Anatomy of Bibliomania. Nineteenth-century English scholar and librarian Henry Bradshaw, Jackson writes, donated his "famous collection of Irish books" to the Cambridge University library in gratitude for, Bradshaw explained,
the liberal manner in which the University enabled him for more than seven years to pursue the studies which he had most at heart.
Bradshaw's situation, of course, differed from mine in many ways, but the one that is perhaps the most salient is his gratitude that during that time  "no report during that time was ever demanded of him." No one, mind you, has been demanding the casual, modest, often silly reports I've been making here for seven years, but I've enjoyed writing them and hope you've enjoyed reading them. Thanks for taking the time to stop by over the years..

Friday, November 16, 2012

Returning to the old home place

I mentioned over the summer that one of the transformations on the road from childhood to adult life for me has been the elevation of Thanksgiving over Christmas. As a child, Thanksgiving was dull, whereas Christmas was a whole month of cheer capped by a day of absurd bounty.

Then, in 1996 when I was twenty-two, I was living in London in November, working in a bookstore, and I had to work on Thanksgiving. In the store, it was simply one more day along the march to Christmas--a march that for retail clerks at times feels just slightly less horrible than Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. And while my girlfriend and I had a pleasant dinner with fellow ex-pats, it was nothing like a real Thanksgiving. Can you have Thanksgiving properly with no one under 80 at the table? It seemed wrong then, and it would still seem wrong now.

So as Thanksgiving week slips up on us, bringing in its train the carnival of pell-mell nonsense that is the holiday shopping season in America, you could do far worse than to steal away and spend some quiet time with new books from Richard Russo and Wendell Berry.

Russo's Elsewhere is a memoir, primarily about his difficult, charismatic, problematic, possibly mentally ill mother--and the difficulty of figuring out, managing, and, eventually coming to terms with our earliest, most unguarded relationships. Russo is a man who left his hometown physically, but has never been able to shake it in his writing. (The one book in which he tried hardest to do so, Bridge of Sighs, is easily his weakest, its portrait of an American painter in Venice largely unconvincing.) Elsewhere could easily read like a final betrayal, a laying bare of secrets, doubts, and failures that his mother would never have acknowledged, much less wanted publicly aired. But it doesn't. Instead it is suffused with love, the sort of real love that enables us to overcome frustration, irritation, even the occasional twinge of instantly denied hate. And it reveals a real awareness of and sympathy for his mother's difficult position as a single parent in 1950s America. Take this analysis of her much-bruited independence, for example:
Except she wasn't, not really, and sometimes that terrible truth would punch through the defenses she'd erected and fortified at such a high personal cost. To her credit, she almost never shared her doubts, her temporary losses of faith, with me, her principal audience. She kept the narrative of our lives consistent and intact. We, the two of us, were all we needed. As long as we had each other, we'd be fine. For my part I never let on that I suspected the truth: that, yes, she had a good job, but that as a woman she was still paid less than men with the same duties. They had families to support, she was told, as if she didn't. By the time she paid for her ride to and from work and the clothes she needed to look the part there, she could have done almost as well working in Gloversville. Yes, she paid her rent faithfully, but at Gloversville, not Schenectady, prices, and my grandparents, though they never said so, could have charged anybody else more. And what would it have cost if she'd had to pay someone to look after me while she worked, a job my grandmother did, lovingly, for free?
In that passage, which comes early in the book, we begin to get hints of the layers upon layers of experience, interpretation, and emotion that Russo will unpeel in the book. As I read, I kept thinking of a lyric from a Tracey Thorn song, "This is just my heart laid bare." Russo, one of our greatest novelists, has bared his heart, and the result is compulsive, moving reading.

I alternated reading Elsewhere, chapter by chapter, with reading stories in Wendell Berry's new collection, A Place in Time. Berry has been writing about the same small patch of ground in northern Kentucky--a town and its people that he calls the Port William membership--for more than fifty years now, and every time he adds chapters our long-lensed image of his characters grows richer. Most of my reading of Berry occurred in a binge right before I started this blog, so I've not written much about him, but he's a writer I treasure like few others, funny and serious at the same time, and always, always deeply humane. Berry writes about people and the land, and the way that farming--and, by necessary extension--rural small-town life, changed inexorably with the rapid growth of mechanization after World War II. So he is writing about loss, fundamentally, but also about memory, and stories, and what makes a place and a people. One reason I find Berry's work so compelling is that growing up in a small town in rural Illinois, just north of the Kentucky border, through the tail end of the transformation (and, fundamentally, losses) that he describes: when I was a kid, Main Street in our town had a toy store, two men's clothing stores, a women's clothing store, a jeweler, a card shop, and more. But a K-Mart had recently opened, a Wal-Mart was on the way, and the last vestiges of a small-town, farm-town life that stretched back more than a century were fading. By the time I left in 1992, it was all gone.

Berry, who as a young man left and then returned to his rural Kentucky birthplace, can occasionally be didactic in his evangelizing for the local, the small, the sustainable. But those moments are overwhelmed by the beauty of the larger web he weaves, a tapestry of interlocking families, friends, and rivals stretching from before the Civil War to the present. Every story he writes--and, remarkably, every story he's written since his first book, when he was only twenty-six--is shot through with an awareness of time and loss, and of the importance, to ourselves if to no one else, of remembering the stories of those who've gone before. Thinking about Thanksgiving brought to mind this passage, from the story "At Home", which simply follows the thoughts and memories of Art Rowanberry, an aging World War II veteran, as he walks across country he's walked countless times:
The river valley was out of sight behind him now, the creek valley lying fully open ahead of him. Though the light had weakened, he could still see the house, the barns and outbuildings, the swinging bridge over the creek, at the end of nowhere the center of everything, and the day coming to rest upon it.

He knew he would walk on the earth a while yet, and then he would yield back his body to be with the old ones who had come and gone before him, and of this he made no complaint.
This, it seems to me, is what Thanksgiving, properly taken, asks of us. Next weekend, as I walk near my parents' house, and look out over vistas revealed by the autumnal stripping of the trees and fields, I'll be thinking of Art Rowanberry, and Wendell Berry, and my grandparents and great-grandparents, and my nephews and nieces and the centuries that stretch behind and before that assemblage.

Lest I leave you for a week--next week seeming unlikely to yield time for writing--on too somber a note, I'll close with a couple of lines from a column that Charles Portis wrote for the Arkansas Gazette in 1959, collected in Escape Velocity: A Charle Portis Miscellany:
There were Presbyterians, Methodists, and a sprinkling of Baptists at these get-togethers we attended, and when it came time to eat the honor of returning thanks usually fell to the windiest old man there.

He would send a long, thunderous blessing rambling up to the skies, and you would have thought that we had all just been delivered from the fiery furnace, instead of sitting down to eat some sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows on top.
Happy Thanksgiving, y'all. And for those of you outside God's U.S. of A., who perhaps have never had a chance to enjoy sweet potatoes baked with marshmallows, drop me an e-mail and I'll gladly send a recipe. That shit is divine.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Charles Portis yet again

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Though I'll cop to being 'round the moon for the novels of Charles Portis, I've only been a fan for a couple of years. (Thanks, Ed Park!) So presumably I can be forgiven for not knowing this story of one of the many times in the past four decades that he's been rediscovered:
The earliest inclusion in my Portis file was a 1984 story from the New York Times. . . . The story told of two bookstore employees in New York who were so smitten with Portis's five-year-old out-of-print novel The Dog of the South that they bought all 183 remaning hardcover copies (it had never appeared in paperback) and set them up as the sole window display in the Madison Avenue Bookshop. The books sold fast, to the curious and to those collared by the hand-selling bookstore staff.
The story comes from Jay Jennings's introduction to the new collection of Portis miscellany that he edited, Escape Velocity. Portis, sadly, is such a strange writer--too funny to be taken up by those who require their great novels to announce themselves as such; too haphazardly regional to be our designated national jester; too earnest in his ironies to be slotted comfortably, well, anywhere--that it seems likely he'll need to be rediscovered in perpetuity, exhumed with the pickaxes of praise once a generation or so.

The very existence of Escape Velocity, then, is a reason for celebration, a sign that for now the Portisean moon is in the seventh house, tarpaper and shotgun though its accompanying adjectives may be. Portis fans don't need my encouragement to plunk down twenty-eight of their ill-gotten dollars for it, but just in case, I'll offer up a passage--selected, mind you, nearly at random--to make my case. It comes from a four-part series on quitting smoking that Portis wrote for the International Herald Tribune in 1962:
Another day of lethargy in this bee-loud glade, trying to kick the smoking habit. It appears every one will make it but me.

I did, however, beat a kid at ping-pong three straight games. He had little short arms and all I had to do was tip the ball over the net out of his reach. So much for his nicotine-free lungs.
To think: the subscribers of 1962 had not a whit of context in which to place those sentences! What on earth would one think, sitting down to his shimmer-weak percolator coffee (and, let's be honest, breakfast cigarette), shaking straight the page, and reading this man's bragging about beating a child? But we know: those paragraphs are pure Portis.

Buy Portis. Read Portis. You'll be the better for it.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Parachute packs, routines, and reading

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I've spent the past couple of weekends binging on Don Winslow novels, racing through The Dawn Patrol, The Death and Life of Bobby Z, Savages, The Kings of Cool, and The Winter of Frankie Machine. In case you can't tell by the length of that list, I'm impressed: Winslow writes irresistible crime novels--fast-paced, smart, full of interesting, memorable characters and written with a wry humor in punchy, slang-filled sentences that he obviously had fun crafting. In addition, the southern California setting, centered around San Diego but running along the coast from Mexico to LA, is handled well. It's long been a truism that crime fiction needs to be rooted in a distinct locale, and while there are plenty of examples to the contrary (the Parker novels, for one), Winslow's books are a good reminder of what a well-described and fully understood setting can do: without being heavy-handed, each novel paints a bit more of the picture of SoCal crime past and present, high and low, secret and sanctioned, and taken together the panorama is richly peopled, extensive, and convincing. Though I'll probably bring my actual binge to a deliberate halt soon--all things in moderation, as Aristotle said, including all things in moderation--I'm glad that a bunch more Winslows will be waiting for me when I'm ready to return to him.

Two bits from The Winter of Frankie Machine, which I finished today, got me thinking and seemed worth sharing. The first comes when the Frankie of the title, a retired hit man, realizes he's in danger and has to run. He heads to an apartment he's kept as a bolt hole, and there he opens a safe that's in the closet:
Inside the safe is his "parachute pack"--an Arizona driver's license, an American Express Gold card and a Visa Gold card, all under the name Jerry Sabellico. Every month or so, he makes a phone purchase with the cards to keep them current, and pays them with checks from his Sabellico account. There's also ten thousand in cash in used, mixed bills.

And a new, clean, .38 Smith & Wesson with extra ammunition.
When I was a teenager and just getting into crime fiction, this was the sort of thing that would absolutely thrill me: it's like getting secret instructions for how to live life as a badass--just in case. Of course when you're an adult you should have a bolt hole, and of course it should have all those things in it.

Then you grow up, and you realize how glad you are that--no real surprise, let's be honest--you didn't end up living the kind of life that might require a quick getaway. Instead, you're living a life bound up in routine--which Winslow also addresses:
All Frank's days are busy, what with four businesses, an ex-wife, and a girlfriend to manage. The key to pulling it off is to stick to a routine, or at least try to.

He has tried--without conspicuous success--to explain this simple management technique to the kid Abe. "If you have a routine," he has lectured, "you can always deviate from it if something comes up. But if you don't have a routine, then everything is stuff that comes up. Get it?"
In some ways, though, even the routine as presented by crime novels is seductive: how many of us have actual routines that don't involve simply going to the office at roughly the same time every day? How many of us surf every morning then hit the same diner for breakfast? The detective (or the criminal, reformed or otherwise) chooses his routine rather than letting it bind him. Like the unchanging patterns of life at Nero Wolfe's brownstone, it's the comforting structure that we're supposed to fall for as readers, so that when the "stuff that comes up" happens, the disruption feels real and we're ready to go along for the ride.

Rather than a routine, what I have these days is a bunch of specific things I want to do each day. When I was a student, and then a young bookseller, I budgeted every week to the dollar (or, when I was selling books in the UK, to the pound). These days, I budget time to the hour instead, plotting days in advance when I'll make the space for running, for the piano, for writing. Habits rather than actual routine rule my days, the difference being that habits are easily rearranged, re-sorted--and few blocks of time fail to be earmarked in advance.

I think it's a good sign that such a situation doesn't even begin to make me long for a bolt hole, a parachute pack, or the sort of life where those are needed. It does, however, make me grateful for the occasional weekend that offers some wide open spaces for doing little but reading crime novels--and even more for a weekend when that reading turns out so well.

Friday, November 09, 2012

In Russia . . .

Wednesday's post drew on an odd little novel that Melville House just republished as part of their Neversink Library, William Gerhardie's Futility (1922). Gerhardie was born of British parents in Russia, and he lived there until enlisting in the British army at the outbreak of World War I, when he was seventeen. Futility a novel of comic despair, is drawn from his experiences as part of the British military's attempts to disrupt the Bolshevik Revolution in the years right after the war. It offers delicately funny portraits of a family of minor aristocrats who blithely continue their feckless ways as the revolution rages around them, and of the young narrator's amusement, irritation, and unrequited love.

Gerhardie has a suitable eye for the absurd, which is of course required for anyone, Russian or not, writing about Russia in that period (or any?), and the book is full of the sort of silliness, self-regard, and charming grandiosity that we are familiar with from Tolstoy's comic characters, or the most dissolute of Dostoevky's passionate lunatics--wrapped round with Gerhardie's wry observations of them. This assessment of the family patriarch is a good example:
Nikolai Vasilievich was very bitter. He had regarded the war almost as a deliberate attempt of providence to complicate his already very complicated domestic situation, and considering that providence had had the satisfaction of achieving its pernicious end, it seemed he could not understand the necessity of a revolution. "Malignity! Malignity!" he muttered, lowering the blinds, as if to show that he, at any rate, would have nothing to do with it.
I enjoyed this bit as well, with its Russian take on English lit:
"You in England are fortunate indeed. You have serious, moral writers who think of the good of the race and really teach you something positive, constructive and worth while. You have Byron and Oscar Wilde . . . "

Like so many other people in Russia, Fanny Ivanovna believed that England has three great outstanding writers: Byron, Shakespeare, and Oscar Wilde.
I'll admit to surprise that Dickens isn't of their number, given Dostoevsky's and Tolstoy's regard for him.

There are also scenes of straight comedy, like this account of a night in new lodgings alongside the narrator's superior, a British Admiral:
Then in the small hours of the morning [the Admiral]  was wakened by the noise of a dog that ran through the half-open door of his bedroom in pursuit of a cat. I heard the Admiral strike a match, then jump out of bed and fumble with his stick under the bed and cupboards and chest of drawers, evidently looking for the animals. I went in to him and offered my services in the chase.

"Can you see the dog?" came the Admiral's sturdy voice from under a cupboard.

"I'm looking for the cat, sir."

"Cat! Where did that come from?"

"I saw it run into your room after a rat."


"I did, sir, and the dog ran in after the cat."

We fumbled with our sticks.

"I don't believe there was a rat," said the Admiral.

"There was, sir. I saw it myself."

"I don't mind the dog so much. Cats I hate. But I can't stick the rat. Why did you tell me?"

I did not answer this.

"Can't find them, sir," I said, rising.

"They've gone, I hope," said the Admiral.

"They've hidden themselves somewhere, I think."

"Damn them! I shan't be able to sleep all night."

"Good night, sir," said I.

The Admiral could not sleep. I heard him get out of bed and fumble with his stick beneath the furniture. I think the uncertainty of the whereabouts of the animals disturbed his peace of mind. Then I heard him creep into bed, and all was still. I could just hear the rain drum against the window-pane; and I thought that by now the cat had probably eaten up the rat.
The comedy isn't up to the level of Waugh, or even Anthony Powell--of whose scenes of army life that vignette recalls--but it's satisfying nonetheless, and the "only in Russia" aspect of it makes it all the more fun. (If only the dog had been followed by a bear!)

Thinking of Russian bears makes me realize that the book that Futility most reminds me of is Penelope Fitzgerald's The Beginning of Spring. It, too, tells of an Englishman in Russia as the revolution nears, and while that book has an air of mystery and a beautiful spareness of prose that Gerhardie's can't match (and, to be fair, doesn't attempt), in their pictures of a culture half-grasped, yet forever elusive, they feel like kin. And given how highly I think of Fitzgerald's achievement in that novel, that's high praise.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Wall? What wall? Oh, this one I've been banging my head against? That's not a wall--that's clearly a pillow!

Oh, Melville House--how I envy your Neversink Library!

Today, in honor of Karl Rove's gobsmacked face, I share the following, from William Gerhardie's Futility (1922), which I happened to be reading today:
General Bologoevski, on my left, was holding forth on the situation.

"Looks pretty hopeless," I remarked.

"Not a bit of it," rejoined the General.

"But they are retreating everywhere."

"On purpose," said the General.

"But whatever for?"

"Well, there was a conference of generals . . . I presume . . . who have decided it. I think it a good thing myself."


"Well . . . we'll entrap them."

"I am most pessimistic."

"I am perfectly optimistic--quite certain of victory."

"Why, General?"


"He is advancing very slowly."

"Ah, but he is about to enter Great Russian territory."

"Well, what's there in that?"

"Why," he explained,"the Great Russians are the only real decent Russians. I am a Great Russian myself."

I nodded with significance, as if to indicate that this made all the difference in the situation.
Alternative responses our narrator might have chosen: slow chin-stroking; painfully deliberate winks; snappy, tilt-headed two-finger salutes; deep, fulsome bows. And, of course, my preferred option: backing away very, very slowly.

Monday, November 05, 2012


Two very quick addenda to Friday's post about hangovers and drinking. The first one comes from A Place in Time, Wendell Berry's wonderful new collection of stories about the Port William Membership, whose lives and histories he's beeƄn chronicling for decades now. It's found in "A Burden," which tells of Uncle Peach, a well-meaning ne'er-do-well and drunk:
Oe afternoon Burley Coulter came upon Uncle Peach in front of a roadhouse down by Hargrave. Uncle Peach had been drinking evidently a lot of whiskey and also eating evidently a lot of pickled food from the bar. He had just finished vomiting upon the body of a dead cat, at which he was now gazing in great asotnishment.

"Well, what's the matter, old Peach?"

"Why, Burley," Uncle Peach said. "I remember them pigs' feet and that baloney, but I got no recollection whatsoever of that cat."
That one's gross; the next one's horrible. It comes from Stefan Kiesbye's strange and satisfying little book of horrible stories (think Grimm's Fairy Tales crossed with a more sordid Gashleycrumb Tinies) Your House Is On Fire, Your Children All Gone:
He drank until his sweat turned pink.
And with that, well, the coffee is brewing and Monday's tired of waiting.

Friday, November 02, 2012

On that feeling of overnight having had 95% of the cells in your body secretly replaced by unfathomably pure, lab-grade regret

{Photo by rocketlass.}

One of my many sure-to-be-unfulfilled ambitions is to edit an anthology of literature's great hangover scenes. The centerpiece would of course be Lucky Jim, whose recent republication by NYRB Classics is plenty of reason to quote it again:
Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.
Good god, that "tarry shingle of morning," the "dusty thudding," the cross-country run. The whole passage trips off the tongue--or would, that is, were the tongue not coated on waking in what seems to be the matted pubic hair of a syphilitic muppet.

Amis also addressed the subject in his book Everyday Drinking:
When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is, and there is no use crying over spilt milk.
Amis, as you probably know, was something of an expert at both the putting in and the sweating out of the stuff. Cyril Connolly is another who was no stranger to the bottle, and in his sole novel, The Rock Pool, he dealt expertly with its consequences:
Naylor woke late, with a hang-over. It was relatively a new sensation for him, for he was proud of a certain donnish temperance. He would take two whiskies at night and suddenly round on those of his friends who had a third one. Not that he minded, only it seemed rather childish; remember the law of diminishing returns? And why make yourself sick the next day? But strangely enough he was not sick--instead he seemed to be spun up in a kind of voluptuous cocoon. The sun streamed in over the purple bougainvillea. He tottered down to the sea. Lying on his back, the curious sensation was stronger, his stomach seemed made of wool, his throat felt some rich sensual craving, his mind floated among a multitude of sensations, all his senses were slowed up to an unusual delicacy. He masticated a line of Eliot: "The notion of some infinitely tender, infinitely suffering thing." Opening his eyes, the sky and sand were grey as a photograph, his antennae played over the tiny crystals, women's brown legs passed him on the board-walk, but he could not look up. "You see in me a creature in the most refined state of intoxication," he thought, and waves of sensual and lotophagous reminiscence swept over him.
Much as I love the martini, I'll cop to a certain "donnish temperance" myself--one tends to suffice--and I doubt I'm alone in this, our (thank god) more liver-conscious age. In these more temperate times, perhaps it's too much to hope for new entrants to the tippler's TOC?

Fortunately, British novelist Will Wiles has come to the rescue: one of the many great pleasures of his smart, funny, even scabrous new novel Care of Wooden Floors is its splendid rendering of a hangover.

But we'd be doing the memory of Lord Rochester a disservice if we skipped straight to the consequences and neglected the earning of the hangover! First let's get the protagonist--a mostly directionless young Brit who is house-sitting for a particularly particular friend in an eastern European city--drunk. With a friend of said friend who is a musician and (thus?) a committed drinker. Ah, yes, here it comes:
My brain felt thick with scabs, old and new. It was full of wine, it rotated, looked close to spilling.
And that's before they even get to the strip club:
The tide of alcohol was coming back in, dissolving these arguments, mushing them into short-circuiting feedback loops, eating away at ethics, at second thoughts, at broader contexts, at tomorrows and consequences. Amber bumped and ground, and the drink revealed a simple formula on the smeared palimpsest of my mind: seek pleasure. . . . The beer was not helping me as I thought it had been--it had been lying to me. I thought of fermentation, of yeast, of gases, of microbial processes. The wine churned, and came close to spilling.
If only he'd been drinking in Springfield, Homer could have told him that the beer was lying.

And it does spill. Oh, does it spill. But he at least makes it back home, somehow, only to be greeted by the morning:
White noise. Indistinct sound, beneath hearing, the growl and whoosh of blood forcing through tight passages. A two-part beat, the slave-driver's padded drumsticks rising and falling as an exhausted muscle trereme heaves across a treacle ocean. A heart, pumping hot, thick goo in place of blood. Cells striving and dying. The electricity of the brain whining like an insectocutor. A cascade of neural sparks, an ascending, crackling chain reaction, synapses firing. Sensation--the sensation of no sensation. Then, awareness.

A cosmos of pain, discomfort, sickness, and weakness. I was awake. At first, everything seemed to be pain, but this was an illusion brought on by apparent damage to the sensory apparatus. The brain. The brain hurt. It was a sinkhole of pain, dragging all other senses in. Each beat of the drum, each stroke of the oars, simply scooped more sensation towards that pulsing black point of hurt. My heart was going to give up and get sucked into my head, it would explode, and I would die in bed.

In bed. So I was in bed. I realised that this was a good sign.
Or, as Withnail once put it, "I feel like a pig shat in my head." The growing awareness of the extent of his pain continues for three more extravagant pages. "Committees of investigation" are formed to determine that, yes, he is merely hungover. But oh, that merely:
My body was made from wads of soggy material inexpertly lashed together with stringy sinews. The wads composed of the worst stuff possible--bad milk, wine turned to vinegar, chewed gum, earwax, the black crud that accrues on the bottom of computer mice.
The whole scene is the work of a writer having fun with words, and it definitely earns Wiles a place in my chimerical anthology.

And with that, I'll pour the night's lone martini and settle in at the piano to play some Johnny Mercer. Now there was a man who could put it away.