Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Great Writers in an Atmosphere

There's a ruckus behind us, and the fire exit opens once more as a couple of old drunks get the bum's rush and land in a sodden heap at our feet. "No, don't get up!" Charles Bukowski tells us with the bent logic of whiskey from his spot on the pavement, to which John Fante responds "After you!" patting his pockets to see if his own pint of fortified wine is still intact. Legendary outsider and uber cult writer Bukowski has won legions of fans with his raw, expressive poetry and novels, starting with Post Office, in which the author's fictional alter-ego Henry Chinaski goes through a championship season in hell as he drinks to obliterate his life as a mail sorter. In these crass and confessional celebrations of life on the edge, Bukowski followed in the tottering footsteps of the all-but-forgotten Fante, who painted the wild misadventures of his own alter-ego Arturo Bandini in books such as Ask the Dust, re-discovered by Bukowski as he roamed the public library in quest of something real. The pair are singing a sad funny song too profane to reproduce here, when Nelson Algren appears out of the shadows to help them to their feet. No stranger to skid row, the leftist author of A Walk on the Wild Side made it his life's work to tell hard-edged, unvarnished tales of the downtrodden and rejected. Fante passes him a bottle and Algren takes a brotherly swig and passes it to us as Bukowski describes the ample charms of the hooker who just got them kicked out of the bar for copping a feel. Algren counters with the story of how he just got kicked out of the coffee house after getting in a brawl with Louis-Ferdinand CĂ©line. "Don't get me wrong, I love his books — have you read Journey to the End of the Night? — but the man's a lousy Jew-hater!" "He's a magnificent bastard, just like me," rejoins Bukowski before suggesting they all go back to his place for a few drinks. Fante says "Call my son! Call a cab! Call my son the cabbie!" (Which is no lie, as chip-off-the-old-block Dan Fante will tell you himself in such nasty little books as Short Dog: Cab Driver Stories from the L.A. Streets.)

A cab sounds like a fine idea, but no sooner do we start down the alley than our way is blocked by a menacing knot of angry youths wielding clubs, looking like something out of Richard Price's The Wanderers or S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders or Edwin Torres's Carlito’s Way. "Now what do you subhuman idiots want with little old us?" asks Bukowski, spoiling for a fight, when suddenly we become aware of a rival gang of hooligans behind us. These hopped-up rude boys look like something out of Stewart Home's Slow Death or Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, and it looks like everything's going to get very Clockwork Orange in a minute, when suddenly a pair of cops emerge out of the bar looking like something out of Derek Raymond's He Died With His Eyes Open or James Ellroy's L. A. Confidential, which is to say these guys are hardly "by the book," and what's more they've got guns. In a twinkling, the angry clusters disintegrate into ones and twos, leaving our motley little band in the middle, staring back at the cops. "Nice to meet you, fascist pigs," says Algren, "They're drunk. I'm disorderly." Fortunately the cops' attention is distracted by the exclamations of a couple of junkies openly shooting up against the wall opposite: "Pure dead brilliant!" says one. "Yer mad wi it!" says the other. It's James Kelman, author of How Late It Was, How Late, and Alan Warner, author of Morvern Callar, whose works together with Irvine Welsh round out the unholy trinity of Scottish iniquity, so laden are they with heroin, ecstasy, fights, pints, and all manner of nastiness, all rendered in the guttural patois of the Scottish streets.

While the cops saunter over and begin their shakedown we are momentarily distracted by a couple of angry old men who look on, sniping to each other from the sidelines. Something about the more curmudgeonly of the pair seems familiar, as if we should know who he is. But now it looks like the stoned Scots have somehow arranged to give up their dealer, who is not far away, and we tag along on the shaky premise that we might be safer with the cops that without them. Sure enough, there on the corner are Herbert Simmons and Donald Goines, working out some sort of deal with Iceberg Slim and one of his whores. Simmons's Corner Boy rocked the literary establishment of 1957 with its frank depiction of a drug dealer's downward spiral. As for Goines, the establishment never knew this Detroit ex-con and junkie existed as he pumped out raw, unapologetic street sagas such as Daddy Cool and DopeFiend into the same African-American literary underground that produced Iceberg Slim Beck's ghetto classic Pimp. Everything happens fast: the cops are spotted, the dealers break in all directions, guns are drawn, and suddenly out of nowhere our two cops find themselves at the business end of two sawed-offs, leveled by Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, the black cops who starred in several of Chester B. Himes's bleak, brutal crime novels including A Rage in Harlem and Blind Man with a Pistol. "I think these officers are outside their jurisdiction, Ed," says Jones. "I think you just might be right, Gravedigger," says Ed. No more need be said, as everyone is backing slowly away from the men with the shotguns. Himes's fiery, racially-charged novels anticipated every other writer represented here, from Ellroy to Goines and Slim, and his reputation for scenes of swift and brutal rage is legendary. Nobody wants a piece of him, or his protagonists.

The threat of violence now past and the crowd dissipating, it suddenly occurs to us who that old cynic reminded us of — he was the spitting image of Ambrose Bierce, aka Bitter Bierce, the sardonic author of timeless short stories who disappeared without a trace during the Mexican revolution in 1913. We've found him, but rushing back to the spot we see the two are gone, although the other one has left a handwritten notebook behind, labeled The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. No! Could that have been the notoriously reclusive B. Traven, the author that nobody's ever seen? Now we'll never know. However, this manuscript will be worth a fortune. We tuck it away and look around trying to get our bearings. Just around the next corner we hear music and raucous laughter. Is it the carnival? Let's see.

The source of the music is a man playing forlorn jazz on a muted horn, slow and lonely. As we toss a quarter into his hat, David Goodis lowers his trumpet and warns: "Watch where you're going; this is a dark and lonely one-way dead end street." He seems to be piling on, this melancholic troubadour who penned such turgid obsessive noir fiction as Shoot The Piano Player, and we've seen plenty already tonight, so we continue on. Around the corner is a rough looking crowd of guys shooting dice in a loading dock, while Damon Runyon is regaling them with one of stories of colorful gangsters told in his trademark style, a grandiloquent yet slangy present tense. A true American original, there's hardly a hardboiled crime writer today that is not in some way indebted to Runyon's ebullient black comedies. Meanwhile James M. Cain, the godfather of noir, looks nervously around him, for his last throw has cost him considerably more than he has, and he is beginning to feel like one of his own characters, who are sucked into downward spirals of lust, obsession and greed in titles such as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. "Tough," remarks the laconic writer's writer Paul Cain — no relation — whose lean, mean Fast One has remained what Raymond Chandler called "the high point of the ultra hard-boiled manner" since its publication in the early 30's. Tough guy James Crumley agrees, adding "It's a bitch, ain't it?" A writer's writer from a different era, Crumley helped breathe new life into the Chandler tradition with hardboiled masterworks such as The Last Good Kiss. But nobody's meaner here than Jim Thompson, who smells blood in the water and saunters over to deliver a mean sucker-punch to the man who owes him money, and then kick him while he's down. Thompson's most notorious creation among many was Sheriff Lou Ford of The Killer Inside Me, a perversely homicidal lawman that would make Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer look like the good cop. As the beating ensues we turn back to Runyon, but he's been usurped by a wild-eyed raconteur spinning a crazily convoluted tale about a death-ray, a human spider and a pair of miraculous spectacles. A literary madman and a cult writer if ever there was one, Harry Stephen Keeler has been rediscovered by a coterie of fans who dub him the Ed Wood of literature based on such unintentionally bizarre mysteries as The Riddle of the Traveling Skull.

"This is good stuff. Inspired," says a thoughtful, square looking fellow to our right. We're guessing he must be some mob consiglieri or accountant, though for all we know he could be a used car salesman from Wichita. "Almost reminds me of my own stuff. I wonder if he used cut-ups?" We reply that Keeler purports to use a convoluted webwork plotting mechanism to construct his tales, to which the man replies, "Well that man's either insane, or on junk, or both. Nice. Would you like a cup of Joe? They're giving it away over here." It suddenly dawns on us that we're talking to William S. Burroughs, cult figure extraordinaire and author of the seminal novel-on-drugs, Naked Lunch, much of which was assembled at random. We follow along and join a shaky string of strung out junkies lined up at a coffee urn outside the Gospel Mission. Now being served is Hubert Selby, Jr., who has depicted the agonies of addicts and outcasts with unparalleled vividness in books such as Requiem for a Dream and the notorious Last Exit to Brooklyn. Next up is Seth Morgan, who was Janis Joplin's lover when she died, and wrote just one druggy thriller — Homeboy — before riding his motorcycle off the Golden Gate Bridge. Then there's Alexander Trocchi, whose novel Cain’s Book is a thinly veiled account of his own legendary days writing porn to support his heroin habit on Paris's Left Bank. Suddenly it is our turn, and we reach up to accept a paper cup of coffee from a kindly looking fellow in an antiquated frock coat who asks us with all the decorum of a butler at high tea, "One lump or two?" "Three," we reply, famished and not knowing when or even if we'll ever get to that carnival. The coffee is good, and as we head into the mission itself to warm up and maybe get a bite to eat, we ask the suddenly blissed-out Trocchi who it is who has just served us; is it the pastor? "Ah, no, but he's father to us all. That was Thomas de Quincey, esq." De Quincey? The author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater? Oh, no! Three lumps!? Suddenly the walls around us start to melt a little, and reality begins to glow and pulse softly, as if lit by candlelight from within. Where are we?

Well, we're in the Gospel Mission, is where we are, but this gospel mission happens to be all purple and melty, and some sort of ceremony or rite is taking place — why, it's a funeral. There's Anne Rice, clad in a big black mantilla, whose place as the queen of the neo-Goths was cemented by such titles as Interview with the Vampire, and there's Poppy Z. Brite, also smartly Gothed-out but with a hip rock 'n roll sensibility, as is her sexy punk vampire debut Lost Souls. On the other side of the coffin is Sheridan Le Fanu, the Victorian Gothicist who preternaturally creepy short stories and novels such as Uncle Silas that still inspire dread today, and even earlier Goth greats such as Charles Maturin and Matthew G. Lewis, whose Ambrosio, or, The Monk, A Romance and Melmoth the Wanderer remain high scripture for those doomed to walk the night in black eye makeup. There at the coffin's head, his crazed goatish appearance enhanced by means of a weird occult costume complete with curled ram's horns, is Aleister Crowley, aka "The Beast," intoning an incantation in some arcane (and probably invented) language. Crowley's first novel — The Diary of a Drug Fiend — offers a mind-bending journey into the phantasmagoric visions of this flamboyant magus. He is gesturing over the body with a ceremonial knife hewn from obsidian in an age lost to memory, and we peer down into the coffin and see a young man with a bullet-hole in his forehead. "Who is it?" we ask the man next to us. "This is the body of the Werther lad, denied a Christian burial for his sins, and so given over to Satan's minions," says James Hogg, author of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, a Gothic gem that continues to confound and delight. Ah, the deceased is the tortured young hero of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, and his sin is the suicide which inspired a rash of copycats, and has led this 1774 novel — Napoleon's favorite — to be dubbed the very first cult novel. Suddenly, H. P. Lovecraft grasps our hand, saying "Crowley! The black blade! Let us proffer his beating heart to the ancient ones!" The hugely influential cult author of myriad weird tales holds us fast with a strength surely not his own as Crowley closes in and the room erupts into a cacophony of evil laughter, and the walls are suddenly running with blood, and we tear free and run out of the room, fleeing up and up flights of winding stairs. The cackling ghouls are in hot pursuit, and we slip into a closet to hide.

It is dark, but there is the sound of breathing, and we strike a match, illuminating faces — children's faces — staring back at us out of the gloom. Is this another hallucination? "Who are you? What are you doing here?" we ask. "We're the Dollanganger children," says Chris. "We're hiding," adds Cathy. "Just like you," says Cory. "Hiding from what?" we ask the heroes of V. C. Andrews's Flowers in the Attic. "From those children over there," replies Carrie, and we hold high the match and stare into the mute, menacing gaze of the not-quite-children from John Wyndam's The Midwich Cuckoos. "Don't worry, they won't hurt you," says a little girl behind us, "but I will." It is Rhoda Penmark, the homicidal eight-year-old referred to in the title of William March's The Bad Seed. "Hang him from the mizzen!" shouts an adorable little moppet, presumably a castaway from Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica, the curious and chilling tale of tykes who outrank pirates in their casual cruelty. "Kill the beast!" offers the war-painted Ralph from William Golding's Lord of the Flies. "Slice open his throat," suggests a brutish little boy who must be the alarming evolutionary throw-back Ben from Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child. Our head swirling with terror at the advancing horde of evil children, we run screaming out the door . . . and find everything strangely transformed.

We are now in dimly lit corridor receding before us into seemingly infinite gray, and lined on both sides with closed doors. The bloodthirsty calls from the chamber of evil children have given way to an echoing silence so profound that our own footfalls startle us as we advance towards a door, making our heart beat audibly. The first door is locked, as is the next and the next, but the fourth door gives way onto a small windowless chamber where sits a small man at a desk. He looks up for a moment with large piercing sad eyes, and then returns to his writing without remark. "What is this place?" we ask. No answer. "Where are we?" No answer. "It seems so... so..." "Kafkaesque?" the man interjects, the faintest of smiles crossing his lips. "I was going to say Borgesian," we reply. "Hm. Wait 'til you've been here a few years. It gets Orwellian first, and then Kafkaesque." "How do we get out of here?" Franz Kafka, epoch-making creator of such masterworks of modern dread and alienation as The Trial and The Metamorphosis, pauses in his writing just a moment to say "You have to go to room #9." "But the doors have no numbers." "Room #9," he repeats, holding out a slip of paper, "Show them this." We take the paper and back through the doorway into the hallway, and hold it up to the dim light. The paper is blank.

After a seeming eternity of trying doors we find one that is unlocked, and enter into antique paneled library that seems to give off its own purplish darkness. In the far corner, lit by a guttering candle and the wan moonlight coming through the window, is another small man writing, and when he looks up we see that his watery eyes are also unforgettably sad and penetrating. Abashed at our intrusion upon his brown study, we ask "Is this room #9? We're trying to get to the carnival." Edgar Allan Poe mildly replies "And you took De Quincey's dose?" "Yes," we admit, "Three lumps." "Three!" he cries, "Three!!?? Then you shall never, never get to the carnival," he moans, burying his head in his shaking hands. But wait: the window. A way out! Wild with a perverse and uncanny terror, we rush headlong to the open window and hurl ourselves impetuously out into the night.

We land with a dull thud and find ourselves . . . nowhere. Well, not precisely nowhere, but in a blank, deserted space, like a boundless darkened stage after all the scenery has been removed. Looking back we see that the window is just a frame, suspended with ropes from the obscurity above. The moon is a bare light bulb, hanging over a desk where sits yet another writing man, this one as tall and thin as a Giacometti sculpture, like the whittled-down essence of a man after all the inessentials have been removed, and all that is left are the wild blue eyes of a prophet, which fix on us now with an amused squint. "It's you," Samuel Beckett says, looking up from the manuscript of his great trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, "Have you got the paper?" We hand over Kafka's blank scrip, and Beckett holds it to the light and peruses, and after a great while he starts to chuckle. Then laugh. His laughter swells, and it is infectious, for we find ourselves laughing too. Not nervous laughter but honest mirth, as at the unstated punch-line to some untold joke. We both laugh and laugh, and when the laughter finally stops, Beckett nods and gestures at the emptiness all around us. "Welcome to the Carnival."

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