Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Writers As We Imagine

With Oscar Wilde and Truman Capote at the fore, we have no trouble getting past the bouncer — a hulking Hell's Angel that makes even Wilde look small — but just past him we encounter a curious figure wearing aviator glasses and field reporter's togs, whose self-appointed duty it is to check guns. "Guns? Guns? Leave your guns and ammo at the door!" he prattles, and when we shrug and admit we don't have any, he wails with astonished dismay, "What do you mean you don't have any guns!? This is America! Here!" he barks, and thrusts a shotgun into our hands. "This once belonged to Hemingway's pappy! Only used once — no — twice." We try to give the gun back, but Hunter S. Thompson, the iconic wild man and preeminent cult figure who begat gonzo journalism, now appears to be frisking a ten-foot-tall squirrel dressed in full Scottish regalia, tempting us to wonder if he's under the influence of some mind-altering substance. Thompson, that is. Not the squirrel. Although come to think of it, why would a squirrel be wearing a kilt?

Leaning the gun up against the wall and looking around for Tru, we spy him seated at a table of fellow sons and daughters of the South, wading into his first Julep. Tennessee Williams is buying, though the great playwright and author of inspired short stories of desperation and debauch may not be entirely aware of this fact, having imbibed overmuch already. We order up a double bourbon on the rocks, on his tab. "Brutes!" exclaims Tru, looking on in worshipful horror as Harry Crews arm wrestles Nick Cave. In the reddish glow of the bar light, we can just read the e e cummings line tattooed on Crews's knotty, twitching bicep — How do you like your blue eyed boy, Mr. Death? — and smell his peppery white-trash armpits as he struggles against the younger man. "Pussy! Limey Bastard!" Crews bellows. "I'm an Aussie, mate!" winces Cave, and Crews screams "Then fly your baboon ass back to Oz, monkey boy!" It almost resembles a scene from one of Crews's novels, rowdy rambunctious freak shows — heaping platters of deep-fried insanity with a side of cheesy grits — books with titles like A Feast of Snakes and All We Need of Hell. Rock star Cave's own swampy grotesque yarn about the damned preacher Euchrid Eucrow, And The Ass Saw The Angel, is a worthy tribute and addition to the Southern Gothic masters seated around the table. But he's no match for Crews, who slams his hand down on the table, hard. The pair break into a brawl, and the Hell's Angel is soon ushering them both toward the door.

Our drink arrives, and just then we notice at the head of our table is the great man himself, William Faulkner, with Cormac McCarthy seated dutifully at his right hand. Faulkner's lush streams-of-Southern-consciousness have flowed into the prose of almost every writer here to some degree, and his most cult-y titles are probably the most difficult: As I Lay Dying, or Absalom, Absalom. As for McCarthy, his recent association with Oprah has called his cult status into serious question, but the real hipsters will tell you they knew him when, and sing psalms of gory glory to his great early masterpiece of brutality, Blood Meridian. McCarthy is telling the ladies across from him a stomach-churning tale of a benighted Child of God who dwells in darkness and makes love to human remains. At this last detail, Carson McCullers does indeed look a little peaked; she always did have a special sensitivity for victims, weaklings and outcasts, as witnessed by The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, her story of a misunderstood deaf mute. On the other hand, her fellow Georgian belle Flannery O'Connor doesn't bat a lash of her gimlet eyes. Let him do his worst; this Southern Gothic doyenne has been staring into the darkest places in the human heart since Cormac was messing his diapers. She has penned scores of stories that limn the skull beneath the smile, as well as her jet-black debut novel of the desperate deeds of false prophets and whited sepulchers, Wise Blood. At her elbow is Virginian Davis Grubb, no stranger to satanic men of God himself. Never heard of him? Well you've seen The Night of the Hunter with Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell, the psychotic preacher with L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattooed on his knuckles, as he hunts down a couple of defenseless children across the countryside singing a hymn with creepy malevolence, yes? The film is based on Grubb's book of the same name, and here you can judge a book by its movie, for both are outstanding. You've probably also seen the movie Deliverance, though Georgian poet and novelist James Dickey, seated opposite, thinks you should read the book. We agree.

We're starting to feel a bit woozy from this concentration of sultry Southern strangeness, or maybe it's the bourbon, when someone walks by with a big tray stacked with buffalo wings, ribs and other assorted bar food. It smells terrific, and we'd better get something in our stomachs, so we follow gritty gourmand Jim Harrison's moveable feast over to a card room, where we see through clouds of cigar smoke and testosterone a poker game in progress. Harrison passes us a plate of jalapeño poppers and then proceeds to throw down a handful, looking at us in unblinking defiance. Our manhood challenged, we lock eyes, and choke down a few peppers ourselves, and through the tears in our own unblinking eyes we can tell we've somehow bonded with the author of Legends of the Fall. A shot of whiskey seals the deal, and a beer chaser soothes the fire. "Sit" says dealer Ernest Hemingway. We do, and ante up. The table's round of course, but if it had a head Hemingway would be it, his influence as pervasive here as Faulkner's was at the last table. The game is five card draw, and first to bet is Norman Mailer, who grumbles and throws in three twenties. Either he's got a great hand, or he's bluffing, or he's being a total idiot. It is hard to tell which. Mailer bluffs almost every hand from a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of chutzpah, so you never can be sure when he's actually holding. Sometimes he's got a full house, like with his debut, The Naked and the Dead, regarded by many as the great American war novel. Yet even when he's got nothing but a low pair, he seems to push every hand to the limit. The man to his right is lighting up a fresh cigar when Mailer sneers "Sixty to you, Exley. In our out!?" With a disconcertingly manic sidelong glance, Frederick Exley tosses in his hand, downs his drink and turns full at Mailer, his middle finger raised defiantly. For a moment it seems as though fists are about to fly, but then James Salter says "Too rich for my blood," throwing in his hand, and the tension breaks. Exley turns around, calls Salter something unprintable, and gestures him aside to tell him a self-deprecating story about some recent sexual misconduct that carries some of the painful fascination of his neurotic confessional masterpiece, A Fan’s Notes. For his part, writer's writer Salter is rapt, thinking to himself, "Man, this guy's a study!" Not that he doesn't have tales of his own to tell, as witnessed by his A Sport and a Pastime, crammed as it is with his own sexual escapades in France .

"Hey, kid — sixty to you!" hectors Mailer at the next player down, but Raymond Carver is not feeling rushed. He looks thoughtfully around the table, his eyes scanning the other players looking for some small gesture or "tell," some hairline fissure in their façade that will reveal their inmost fear or failing in an instant. Having duly considered them all, he moves to throw in some bills, but not before Mailer starts making impatient noises. "Will you please be quiet, please?" pleads Carver, which for some reason causes Gertrude Stein to burst out into full-throated laughter, and then sing a mocking little sing-song, "cards, cards, cards . . . I call." as she throws in her own sixty bucks. The whole table seems confused, but her old pal Ernest smiles as he folds his hand, turns to Mailer, and says, simply, "Cards." What had been playfully eccentric patter for uber-modernist Stein (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas) turns to granite in Hemingway's mouth. Mailer asks for three cards. Long story short, Mailer was bluffing and is now broke, Ray Carver takes the pot, Hemingway takes it like a man, and Salter and Exley excuse themselves and set off on a forlorn quest to find Henry Miller and buy him a drink. We take this opportunity to take our leave, but getting up we kick some inert softness under the table. Two booze-soaked forms are down there, sleeping it off: Patrick Hamilton and Malcolm Lowry. Tonight they're Under the Volcano, but tomorrow it'll be strictly Hangover Square.

We hear a burst of loud voices and laughter from the adjoining Zeitgeist Lounge, where a lively younger crowd is gathered at the bar, quaffing mojitos. Hey, aren't those the voices of their generation? Eager to rub shoulders with the literary glitterati we head on over, but can't make any headway against a seething mob of hipsters clustered around Chuck Palahniuk, who is gleefully grossing them out with some anecdote about a man who inflicts an improbable and painful injury upon himself. Rocketing to cult notoriety with his outrageous debut novel Fight Club, the reigning high priest of transgressive fiction is continually striving to outdo his prior excesses of sex, gore, or gory sex, amidst an atmosphere of hollow dystopian malaise. Rather than Choke ourselves in to hear Chuck's latest Rant, we grab a barstool on the periphery where a some morose older folks observe the feeding frenzy.

". . . Bigger than all of you . . ." mutters Jay McInerney, gazing at the spectacle with the strung-out offhandedness of someone coming down after a week with no sleep. True enough, McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City and other cocaine-fueled tales were the cutting edge of Reagan era hipster cynicism. "You may have been bigger, but I was badder," replies Bret Easton Ellis. "Badder, or just more bad?" quips Jay, at which Bret rolls his eyes and moans "Spare me!" After perfecting McInerney's slacker ethos with a debut tale of disaffected scions of privilege whose everything amounts to Less Than Zero, Ellis cemented his place in cult fiction history with the satiric shocker American Psycho, in which yuppie monster Patrick Bateman juxtaposes brand-names and butchery, pop music and pornographic mutilation. It isn't everyone's cup of blood, but the in-crowd was wise to the story's Swiftian sensibilities. "Whatever," opines fellow literary enfant terrible Michel Houellebecq, demonstrating that yes, the French have a word for it, this post-post-modern ennui. They also know how to pull out all the stops and rub the reader's nose in the banality of shameless sexual degradation, as Houellebecq does in Platform. Nearby, Rick Moody hoists an unimpressed eyebrow above it all; for the author whose cool detachment first saw the washed-out glare of day in Garden State, events unfold much as he expected, only worse. Meanwhile, back in the limelight, attention has now turned from Palahniuk to young Benjamin Kunkel, telling a funny story about a twenty-something philosophy major whose chronic Indecision leads him to the wonders of 21st century psychotropic pharmacopeia. "Behold, the voice of his generation!" calls out McInerney. Is he in earnest? Who knows?

At an adjacent table, an amused chap sets down his club soda and chuckles "Our new flavor-of-the-month. Smell the hype." Douglas Coupland would certainly know all about hype, having been universally lauded as the voice of his generation, aka Generation X. A keen observer of social mores and fads, Coupland's hit novels were suffused with cultural critique and breezy diagnoses of our society's spiritual bankruptcy, making him catnip to the 90's smart set. "Top of the world, ma!" rejoins Dave Eggers, the maturing wunderkind who first crashed into the limelight with his sly, self-deprecating memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and has since become a cultural phenom with fingers in a dozen pots, from the delightful McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern to the string of non-profit arts organizations begun with Valencia 826, and so on. You Shall Know Our Velocity indeed! "Its no laughing matter," says a measured, attenuated voice out of the shadows, "Success is the smiler with a knife. It will pickle your soul. Much, so very much, will depend on what you do now that you've arrived." Eggers and Coupland both bend attentively forward towards this erudite burned out case, intent on catching and heeding each sage word let fall by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

McInerney again cries "No wait — here he is, the voice of his generation!" noting the limelight's sudden shift to Stephen Elliott, around whom the in-crowd stands agape at the raw recounting of a recent sexual escapade (all we can hear above the noise is Elliot saying "My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up!") "Come off it, Jay!" hollers Tama Janowitz from a nearby perch that she seems to own, before turning back to her drinking companions Mary Gaitskill, Maggie Estep and Amy Hempel. We strain to hear as this quartet of liberated ladies discusses a destructive love affair. "The sex — how's the sex?" inquires Estep, the outspoken performance artist whose Diary of an Emotional Idiot is seasoned with plenty of same. "The sex is great," says Janowitz, whose hip coming of age debut American Dad beat everyone else here to the punch, but who really made the A-list with Slaves of New York. "Well therein lies your problem," responds Hempel, author of many spare yet unsparing tales of love, lust and loss. "Or your salvation," adds Gaitskill, a former stripper whose debut collection of sensual obsession and rough trade among desperate denizens, Bad Behavior, sets up shop in the sometimes considerable space between physical and personal intimacy. "Well if it isn't Sex in the City — the NC-17 version!" inserts Stephen Elliott, sauntering over. "X," retorts Gaitskill. "What say, ladies? Enough talk. Let's go to a real party." Eye contact flashes all around the table. All these jaded poseurs are getting to be a drag, the glances seem to say. We’re big girls; let’s have some fun. Without a word, they all get up and follow Elliott towards the back of the bar. We glance toward the limelight but can't quite make out who is enjoying their 15 minutes of fame right now, and so we toss down our G & T and scurry along behind.

The quartet has ducked into the ladies' room to powder their noses, and Elliott has disappeared behind a little green door in the back. We go through it and walk down some sort of secret passageway that leads through a beaded curtain and into . . . oh my. What have we here? We stand on the brink of a vast, lushly bedecked chamber where an elaborate costumed orgy appears to be in full swing. The blood rushes to our face and we begin to stagger back the way we came, but the way is blocked by a jiggly gaggle of birthday-suited celebrants wheeling in some large apparatus which just might be the aforementioned "full swing." We stumble into the room and find an out-of-the-way spot off to one side, where two older gentlemen relax in robes, taking a breather and commenting on the action, a small woman with a heart-shaped face between them, taking notes. Well what do you know! The first languid swinger is Henry Miller, looking like a sated satyr. Miller's infamous (and famously banned) Tropic of Cancer is an unexpurgated account of his flight from bourgeois respectability to torrid nights of love in Paris, in the arms of the woman at his side, Anaïs Nin, who gave her own accounts of fiery affairs with various men in A Spy in the House of Love and other works, including such well-thumbed collections of erotica as Little Birds and Delta of Venus. On her other side looking like a spent emperor is André Gide, whose The Immoralist records his own struggle against the Victorian strictures of his day, pressures which led him to extremes of indulgent passion. Meanwhile, holding court in the center ring is that old goat the Marquis de Sade himself, who is instructing Georges Bataille in proper riding crop technique. Author of the notoriously degenerate The Story of the Eye, Bataille appears to need some reining in, but his subject, Venus in Furs author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, doesn't appear to mind his zealous lashes in the least. Indeed, he's doubly gratified when Pauline Réage, author of Story of O, gets in a few licks of her own with a red velvet cat o' nine-tails. We're distracted from this jaw-dropping spectacle by a wild hullabaloo nearby, where Erica Jong appears to have lost all Fear of Flying as she tries out the newly erected full swing with John Cleland, the venerable author of Fanny Hill, the first and still one of the best-known "dirty books" of our age. It is at this moment that the ten-foot-tall Scottish squirrel makes his appearance, minus the kilt, and we decide to make a break towards the exit sign's greenish glare. We need some air. Pushing open the fire door, we emerge without ceremony into the alley behind.

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