You never forget your first time. My first Grateful Dead concert took place on May 15, 1970 at the Fillmore East in New York City. I was a high school senior and my older brother let me tag along with him and a bunch of his long-hair college buddies down from Vermont. The New Riders of the Purple Sage opened the show around midnight ii featuring the Dead’s lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia, on pedal-steel guitar -- and then the Dead came on and spent the rest of the night scrambling my brain and changing my life. I stood along the left wall down by the stage, toking on the joints that kept coming my way. The smoke was so thick in the air it was impossible not to get high. I’d been to plenty of rock concerts by then, but nothing like this, nothing so loud, so kinetic, so loose and unpredictable and alive. I knew a little bit about the Dead, mostly through Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but nothing can prepare you for the physicality of their music. It was like riding a locomotive into outer space, the old theater heaving as everyone in the packed house moved in unison. A huge screen behind the band -- it looked like the world’s largest bed sheet -- zoomed and squiggled with a stroboscopic lava-lamp light show. When the music finally stopped, we stumbled out a side exit onto East Sixth Street at dawn, where we were serenaded by a bunch of Hells Angels doing wheelies up the one-way street on their Harleys in the wrong direction. Oh, hell yes! Throw out all the rules! A perfect ending to a mind-bending, life-altering night. Though I attended a few dozen Dead concerts after that one, I never considered myself a card-carrying Deadhead. You know, the fans who go on the road for months at a time following the band, taping the shows, hawking jewelry and tie-dyed t-shirts to pay for gas and bail, eating acid the way ordinary citizens eat Cheerios. My attendance at so many shows had more to do with dumb luck than true tribal passion. My college roommate happened to have a friend who ran the box office at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., a regular port of call on Dead tours, and so we often found ourselves with our feet propped on the edge of the stage, melting into our free front-row seats as the acid kicked in and the Dead blasted off. No wonder I barely squeaked through college. My roommate owned every Dead album then in existence, and one of them was almost always spinning on the turntable in our dorm room. So relentless was the music that I can remember an exasperated neighbor shouting through our open door, “Please guys, not ‘Sugaree’ again!?” The Dead were not to every taste, as I was learning, and a backlash had begun to build. In time, bumper stickers would appear that proclaimed I’ll Be Grateful When They’re Dead. The music critic Dave Marsh dubbed the Dead “the worst band in creation.” Fast-forward a couple of decades to a scalding July day in 1990. I was working as a newspaper columnist in North Carolina at the time, and I couldn’t resist the chance to attend a Dead concert at N.C. State’s massive football stadium in Raleigh. It would be a chance to see what my youth looked like as my 40th birthday loomed. It looked ghastly. What I saw wasn’t mere nostalgia, a bunch of aging baby boomers trying to recapture a glimmer of the good old days, the kind of people you see nowadays at concerts by The Who or Billy Joel or The Rolling Stones, (a.k.a, “the world’s greatest cover band”). No, in Raleigh I saw a whole new generation of fans, young enough to be my children, who were more or less going through the same motions people had gone through a quarter of a century earlier. There were still plenty of “spinners,” those barefoot dancing dervishes. There were still plenty of bandanas, tie-dyes, and patchouli. Only now, that big bed sheet on the stage of the Fillmore East had been replaced by state-of-the-art video screens. There were whole mountain ranges of amplifiers, slick lighting, stands selling expensive souvenir caps, pins, stickers, and tie-dyed t-shirts, plus popcorn at $2 a box. This was the production a very big business, more a corporation than a scruffy, countercultural jam band. In the course of the 1990s, the Dead would become the biggest-grossing tour act in the world. When I mentioned that delightfully crude 1970 light show at the Fillmore East to the Dead’s then-current publicist, Dennis McNally, he told me, “We know better now.’’ I wasn’t so sure. As I wrote in my column, the 35,000 fans who showed up in Raleigh comprised “a huge army of robots going through the same old motions, over and over and over again...a whole new generation of fans who missed the '60s but learned to mimic behavior and dress that were once outlandish but are now merely old hat.” Fast forward a couple more decades, and the Grateful Dead is getting ready to put on three 50th-anniverary shows in Chicago over the Fourth of July weekend, which they swear are going to be their last concerts ever. The death of the Dead has been reported, erroneously, many times since Jerry Garcia suffered a fatal heart attack at age 53 in 1995 while undergoing rehab for a heroin addiction. But every time the band was pronounced dead, they seemed to revive with a new name, a new lineup. So while I’m understandably skeptical of this latest proclamation of a final set of shows, I choose to be optimistic that this time the band finally, honestly, really really really means it. I say I’m optimistic for a number of reasons. First, 50 years is a long enough run for any rock band. Second, there’s nothing sadder than watching a performer overstay his or her welcome (cf. Mick Jagger, Michael Jordan, Elvis). And third, since Garcia’s death the band has employed a number of guitarists to try to recapture his inimitable aura (Trey Anastasio of Phish has the thankless job on the current Fare Thee Well tour), and while I’m not one of those purists who sees this as sacrilegious, I do think it’s vaguely creepy and more than a little opportunistic. It’s also a reminder that the Dead long ago became a very big and very rich corporation with a bottom line to consider. That’s not a knock on their success. It’s just a fact. What a long strange trip it’s been -- long and strange and glorious and sad. No doubt about that. But all trips must come to an end, and it’s time -- it’s past time -- for the Grateful Dead to bid us good night, good night, good night. Image Credit: Wikipedia.
1. A Sacred Vocation "I was first introduced to Philip Levine through the mail in the summer of 1976," Mona Simpson wrote by way of introducing her interview with the poet in The Paris Review in 1988. For my part, I was first introduced to Philip Levine through his second book of poems, Not This Pig, in the spring of 1976. "I was studying literature at Berkeley," Simpson continued, "and my friends and I, all college freshmen or sophomores, were ardent readers of Levine, W.S. Merwin, Donald Justice, Gary Snyder and Hart Crane." At that time I was studying English at Brown, I was a senior, and I was an ardent reader of Merwin, Snyder and Crane, with heaping side orders of Baudelaire and Bukowski, Stevens and Williams, Ginsberg and Rimbaud. I knew already that I had no talent for writing poetry, but I loved to read it because I believed then as I believe now that its compression and precision make it the highest form of writing, even more exalted than the beloved novel. Simpson went on, "A friend from the college literary magazine, The Berkeley Poetry Review, introduced me to Ernest Benck, a California poet, who kindly sent some of both of our poems to Levine. Levine wrote back to us, marking our poems assiduously. Since then I have received many letters from him, always on yellow legal paper with comments like, 'I’m not sure my remarks, which are fairly nasty at times, really indicate...' His comments, though never nasty, were always serious, as if he took the business of correspondence to be part of the education of a poet. I had the feeling he wrote many such letters to young poets around the country: poets driving trucks, picking oranges, poets who were waiters and acupuncturists’ assistants and college students." This is where Simpson's story and mine, after nearly twinned beginnings, started to diverge. I never sent Levine any poems and he never sent me any letters. But I kept reading his poetry, marveling at the development of his craft, his earthy subject matter, and his unkillable passion for poems in a country that was doing its best to marginalize all serious writing, especially poetry. Finally, Simpson summed up the lesson she learned from all the letters she has received from Levine over the years: "Levine takes his role as mentor with the responsibility of a sacred vocation." All of which is a roundabout way of saying I believe Philip Levine is going to make a sublime Poet Laureate when he takes over the post on October 17. 2. Not This Pig When the pupil is ready to learn, says the Zen proverb, a teacher will appear. Without realizing it, I was ready to learn from Not This Pig when it came roaring into my life, unannounced, in the spring of 1976. I had never heard of Philip Levine and I don't remember how I came to the book (or how it came to me), but I do remember being intrigued the instant I picked up this thin $2 paperback and read Levine's remark on the back cover that the book's 37 poems "mostly record my discovery of the people, places and animals I am not, the ones who live at all cost and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos – a gesture they don't need – would have them say, 'Don't tread on me' or 'Once more with feeling' or 'No pasaran' or 'Not this pig.'" The book's opening poems were an astonishment. Written in sparkling, almost stark language – with short lines and non-existent or haphazard rhyme schemes – the poems are populated with auto workers and other prosaic nobodies doing the most unspectacular things: driving home to Detroit after an all-night drinking spree in Toledo; stopping on the side of the road to piss in the snow; tripping the switch that stirs to life the "slow elephant feet" of a metal-stamping press; driving overnight from Detroit to Chicago to see what Lake Michigan looks like at dawn. This last poem, "A New Day," ends with a stanza I can still recite from memory 35 years after first reading it: And what we get is what we bring: A grey light coming on at dawn, No fresh start and no bird song And no sea and no shore That someone hasn't seen before. In these poems, shorelines are not open places full of promise and possibility. They're where the land dies, where things end, where Levine's characters come up against the iron limitations of their small lives. This carries a predictable sense of resignation, but in this resignation there is no admission of defeat; there is, paradoxically, a stubborn refusal to succumb to monstrous and superior forces, in this case the great dehumanizing dynamos of the industrial Midwest. These are, remember, people who live at all cost and come back for more and say, "Don't tread on me" and "Not this pig." Their refusal to admit defeat is a triumphant twist, one that reminds me of Camus' struggle to find the strength "to accept what exists once I have recognized that I cannot change it." Philip Levine was born in Detroit in 1928 and went to work in a soap factory at the age of 14. For the next dozen years he worked a series of brain-killing factory jobs at Chevrolet Gear & Axle, at Cadillac, at Brass Craft, at Feinberg and Breslin's First-Rate Plumbing and Plating – jobs that nearly crushed his spirit and his body but wound up providing him with rich and unlikely fodder for his poetry. "Those were my first good Detroit work poems – the poems in Not This Pig...," Levine told an interviewer for The Cortland Review in 1999. "It's ironic that while I was a worker in Detroit, which I left when I was 26, my sense was that the thing that's going to stop me from being a poet is the fact that I'm doing this crummy work... I'm going to fuck up because what am I doing? I'm going to work every day. The irony is, going to work every day became the subject of probably my best poetry. But I couldn't see that at the time. And it took me another ten years to wake up to it – that I had a body of experience that nobody else had." There are several reasons why I was so ready to learn from Not This Pig in the spring of 1976. First I, like Levine, had grown up in Detroit and was, like all residents of that once-proud, now-ruined city, attuned to the all-powerful rhythms of its auto industry. My father, like everyone's father, worked in the industry, not in the oceanic roar of a car factory but in the considerably less brutal buzzing of the Ford Motor Company's public relations hive. Second, there is a narrative quality to these early poems (and many that would follow), a straightforward telling of stories about unpoetic people that appeals to my own novelistic temperament. Levine once said, "One of the aspects of my own poetry that I like best is the presence of people who don't seem to make it into other people's poems... What I regard as novelistic about my work is the telling of tales, which is utterly natural to me. How can a poet or fiction writer tell the truth...if he or she can't present the events in a meaningful sequence, which is what a story is?" And most importantly, when I first read Not This Pig in the spring of 1976 I was living in the gray borderlands between two worlds, getting ready to leave the world of school and go off into the world of work. It was a confusing time and a confusing place. I had known since the age of 10 that I wanted to be a writer – a real writer, a novelist – but after two years of college I'd become convinced that further schooling would be a waste of time. I was a 19-year-old kid from the middle class who had not yet lived, and I told myself that if I wanted to write fiction I would need a "body of experience," to borrow Levine's phrase. So I dropped out of college after my sophomore year, loaded my dog into my '54 Chevy pickup truck, and took off on an erratic cross-country odyssey that was equal parts Travels With Charley and On the Road, with a few pop quizzes from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test along the way. I got jobs as a racehorse groom, a farm hand, a dish washer, a fruit picker. I worked alongside rednecks, cowboys, Mexican immigrants, Okies and Arkies, people I was not, the ones who lived at all cost and came back for more. One day in northern California, while high in a tree picking fat green Gravenstein apples and listening to my fellow workers chatter in Spanish, I had an epiphany. This was the summer of 1974, the summer when Woodward and Bernstein were completing the ruination of Richard Nixon, and it occurred to me that if I wanted to be a writer I needed to quit picking apples and start getting paid to write. And the best way to do that would be to get a job as a newspaper reporter. And the only way to get such a job, given the "credentials inflation" of the day, was to get a pointless but prerequisite college degree. So I returned to college where, in the spring of my senior year, I came upon a book of poems that proved to me that art can be made from absolutely anything, from a night-shift job at Chevy Gear & Axle or a job picking Gravenstein apples, and that if I truly wanted to be a writer it was up to me to get busy making use of my own body of experience and, far more important, my imagination, my wits, and my will. Philip Levine made me believe I could do it. 3. Small Heroics In 1988, while I was struggling to write a novel set in Detroit during the 1967 riots, Levine published a book of poems called A Walk With Tom Jefferson. Like Not This Pig, the book came into my life, almost magically, at a moment when I was ready to learn from it. In one of the book's first poems, "Winter Words," I heard a thrilling echo of "A New Day": Detroit, 1951, Friday night, after swing shift we drove the narrow, unmarked country roads searching for Lake Erie's Canadian shore. Later, wrapped in rough blankets, barefoot on a private shoal of ground stones we watched the stars vanish as the light of the world rose slowly from the great gray inland sea. Wet, shivering, raised our beer cans to the long seasons to come. We would never die. But it was the long title poem, which comprises the second half of the book, that spoke most powerfully to me. While revisiting his hometown some twenty years after the riots, Levine happened to meet an out-of-work autoworker named Tom Jefferson who was living in an abandoned house on a burned-out block, growing flowers and vegetables, eking out a humble but proud life. Tom Jefferson, who had come up from Alabama, needed just a dozen outraged words to sum up the history of Detroit: "We all come for $5 a day and we got this!" In that Paris Review interview with Mona Simpson, Levine talked about how the poem came into being: "I met a guy who lived in one of these (abandoned) houses. He didn't own it or rent it, and in fact he didn't even know who owned it. He described his life there, and the poem rose out of the conversation we had. It also came out of the hope that the city might be reborn inside itself, out of its own ruins, phoenix-like, rising out of its own ashes. Except I don't see it in heroic terms. The triumphs are small, personal, daily. Nothing grandly heroic is taking place; just animals and men and flowers and plants asserting their right to be, even in this most devastated of American cities." "Nothing heroic is happening in Detroit," Simpson says. "Nothing epic," Levine replies. "Just the small heroics of getting through the day when the day doesn't give a shit, getting through the world with as much dignity as you can pull together from the tiny resources left to you. It's the truly heroic. The poem is a tribute to all these people who survived in the face of so much discouragement. They've survived everything America can dish out. No, nothing grandly heroic is happening in Detroit. I guess nothing grandly heroic ever took place there; it was always automobiles, automobiles, hard work, and low pay." Again, Levine had passed along a valuable lesson – that heroics can be small, that there is something immense about animals and men and flowers and plants asserting their right to be in the most hostile of circumstances. It was a revelation that helped me see my own novel with fresh eyes. I was trying to write with broad brushstrokes about big themes – race, rage, revenge – when I should have been concentrating on my characters' personal daily triumphs and setbacks, the small heroics of getting through the day. Levine helped me finish writing that book. 4. A Message From the Kingdom of Fire If Not This Pig contained Levine's first good Detroit work poems, then 1991's What Work Is contained his very best. The book won the National Book Award, justly so, and minted Levine as a major American poet after thirty years of steady toil. (Four years later he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Simple Truth, and he has been awarded numerous other poetry prizes.) What Work Is opens with a poem called "Fear and Fame," which comes on like a blowtorch and sets the tone of all that follows: Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots, gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet like a knight's but with a little glass window that kept steaming over, and a respirator to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend step by slow step into the dim world of the pickling tank and there prepare the new solutions from the great carboys of acid lowered to me on ropes – all from a recipe I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O'Mera before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric steaming from the wide glass mouth, a dash of pale nitric to bubble up, sulphuric to calm, metals for sweeteners, cleansers for salts, until I knew the burning stew was done. Then to climb back, step by stately step, the adventurer returned to the ordinary blinking lights of the swingshift at Feinberg and Breslin's First-Rate Plumbing and Plating with a message from the kingdom of fire. Oddly enough no one welcomed me back, and I'd stand fully armored as the downpour of cold water rained on me and the smoking traces puddled at my feet like so much milk and melting snow. Such crystalline, deceptively simple writing is the work of a master at the pinnacle of his powers. There is great dignity here, and rich humor too – this working stiff seeing himself as a knight, an adventurer, a chef preparing a lethal stew, and winding up amazed that no one, "oddly enough," welcomes him back from his epic adventure down inside a kingdom of fire that is, in truth, nothing but a poisonous pickling tank. 5. Gifts That Change Our Lives Though now justly famous as a poet – if "famous poet" is not too ridiculous an oxymoron in 21st-century America – Levine also happens to be a superb writer of non-fiction. His 1994 book, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, is less a memoir or straight autobiography than a collection of impressionistic essays about his boyhood and early manhood in Detroit, his later years in California, where he taught poetry, and his travels in Spain, where he fell under the spell of Gaudi's architecture and Machado's poetry and the legends of the doomed anarchists who'd inspired the Spanish Civil War. While writing the book, Levine reports, "I realized I was striving to account for how I became the particular person and poet I am." The book opens with a portrait of his two teachers at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the 1950s, the disappointing Robert Lowell and the ferociously inspiring John Berryman. It was Berryman who instilled in Levine and his classmates – including Donald Justice, W. D. Snodgrass, Jane Cooper, William Dickey, and Robert Dana – the notion that writing poetry is a serious, nearly sacred pursuit, one that requires intensive study and a lifetime of hard work. Yet Berryman was not without a sense of humor. At the end of the semester, teacher and pupil had a conversation about what a poet should look like. "No poet worth his salt is going to be handsome; if he or she is beautiful there's no need to create the beautiful," Berryman told Levine. "Beautiful people are special; they don't experience life like the rest of us." (Lord Byron, apparently, was the exception who proved this curious rule.) After a pause, Berryman added, "Don't worry about it, Levine, you're ugly enough to be a great poet." Levine has reverential feelings for his two most influential mentors – Berryman, the future suicide, and Yvor Winters, who taught Levine that his soul is the part of him that leaves each time he lies. I'm convinced that this reverence goes a long way toward explaining why Levine came to regard his own teaching duties as a sacred vocation, why he has written so many letters on yellow legal paper critiquing the poems of Mona Simpson and all those other young poets who were driving trucks and picking oranges and struggling to be poets. There is a lovely essay called "Entering Poetry" about boyhood nights when Levine climbed up into trees in the woods near his home in Detroit and spoke to the stars. "I would say 'rain' and 'moon' in the same sentence and hear them echo each other, and a shiver of delight would pass through me," he writes. One night, noticing that his hands smell of earth and iron, he says to the stars, "These hands have entered the ground from which they sprang." "That," he reports giddily, "was the first night of my life I entered poetry." Not long after entering poetry, Levine discovered his first poet. "When I was in the eleventh grade and the war was still going," he said in an interview with The New Yorker in 2006, "a teacher read us some poems by Wilfred Owen. And after class, for some reason, she called me up to her desk and said, 'Would you like to borrow this book?' How she knew that I was responding so powerfully to these poems, I’m not sure, but I was. She said, 'Now, I want you to take it home, and read it with white gloves on.' In other words, don’t spill soup on it. It was probably the most significant poetic experience I had in my whole life, and I was only seventeen." In the essay "The Poet in New York in Detroit," Levine describes his young self as "a humiliated wage slave employed by a vast corporation I loathed," namely General Motors. The chapter opens with a frank portrait of this wage slave's unlikely path to poetry: "In the winter of 1953 I was working at Chevrolet Gear and Axle, a factory in Detroit long ago dismantled and gone to dust. I worked the night shift, from midnight to eight in the morning, then returned by bus to my apartment, slept for a time, and rose to try to write poetry, for I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life – or at least the part my work played in it – I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life." I have not read a more succinct portrait of an artist as a young man bursting with an impossible and gorgeous dream. Speaking of his heroes Berryman and Winters, Keats and Whitman, Machado and Garcia Lorca, Levine wrote words I wish I had written about Levine: "That's what they give us, the humble workers in the fields of poetry, these amazingly inspired geniuses, gifts that change our lives." Levine concludes, from long personal experience, that Diego Rivera's graceful, colorful frescoes of autoworkers at the Detroit Institute of Arts are "nonsense." I agree, partly on aesthetic grounds and partly because Rivera, that great communist and champion of the working man, was paid out of the bottomless pockets of Henry Ford's son, Edsel. Likewise his ill-fated mural at Rockefeller Center in New York City, which was paid for (and destroyed) by another family not known for its liberal politics or the sympathetic treatment of the working man. The only weak stuff in The Bread of Time is an essay called "Class With No Class," in which Levine throws a roundhouse punch at the people who have grown rich at the expense of wage slaves like himself, all those country club swells in Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills and Sherwood Forest. Levine, it turns out, is much better at celebrating than at denigrating. Yet "Class With No Class," for all its flaws, had the salutary effect of revivifying the legends of class warfare all Detroiters grow up with. Now more than ever those legends demand to be remembered. In 1937, Henry Ford, the anti-Semitic, anti-union founder of the company my father would eventually work for, had sent his goons out from his River Rouge plant to bloody Walter Reuther and other United Auto Workers union organizers in the notorious Battle of the Overpass. A few months earlier, workers at one of GM's Fisher Body plants in nearby Flint had shut down the assembly line and barricaded themselves inside the factory until the exasperated General Motors brass broke down and agreed to negotiate its first contract with the union. We've come a long way since those heroic days. We now live in an age of high unemployment when labor unions – that is, people who work for a middle-class wage teaching school and making cars and climbing down into pickling tanks – are being laid off and demonized for somehow causing the current economic malaise. Meanwhile, as vast corporations and rich individuals enjoy unconscionable tax breaks and immunity from the public's wrath, the middle class doesn't even realize that it's been hoodwinked, or that it's sinking faster by the day. For this reason, among a great many others, I was thrilled when the Library of Congress announced that our next Poet Laureate will be a card-carrying member of the proletariat, a man who went to work in a Detroit soap factory at the age of 14 and, from that unpromising beginning, went on to write timeless poems and pass along his passion for poetry to hundreds of students like Mona Simpson and untold thousands of ordinary readers like me. We're an unmoored country that needs to be reminded what work is – and what it is not – and there's no one more qualified for the job than Philip Levine.
1. “I think it’s going to be cultic,” Philip Roth said recently on the future of the novel. “I think always people will be reading them but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range.” Of note is the fact that Roth was speaking to Tina Brown, master of ceremonies at The Daily Beast, an online attention-mill that roughly a year after running the quotation in question subsumed old school bearer of the magazine journalism standard Newsweek (inviting visions of joint enterprise, DailyNewsBeast). If the universe online can seem to undercut cherished notions of a solitary speaker delivering polished wisdom and revelation from the mountainside, by democratizing the availability of virtual mountainsides and slaking the requisite for polish - diversion always just a finger’s click away (hey, look at that…) - then it may well fall to the serious novelist to play early Christian to, for lack of a better imperial throne, Gawker’s Rome. Where, after all, are the fictional characters more obsessing than Charlie Sheen and the commentary he provokes? Good novels are the shields we raise in Charlie Sheen’s defiance. To snag an allegory from Adam Levin’s The Instructions (as the early Judeo-Christian/Rome analogy is likewise snagged, 10-year-old protagonist Gurion Maccabee wrestling with his role at the head of such a defiance), reading a novel is akin to entering a defile, “a thin breach through which only one person could pass at a time, a space that an army would have to break ranks in order to trek.” It is the solitary nature of a novel’s undertaking - the enchantment and transport of fiction, a shared secret – that gives it such formative weight for the individual reader. Days, weeks, months spent reading a book can’t be replicated by the blaze of movie-viewing, slippery ephemera, an experience vertiginous for want of words. Fiction can trigger strong feeling, and with a book in your lap, you own it – you read where you want to read, the story proceeds when you will it to proceed. In marginalia, you can record what a given sentence means to you. No such option exists in a movie theater, save for what gobbledygook you manage on your cell. Consciousness of any feeling the story elicits can slip away in the light of the lobby, the smell of popcorn, your companions’ faces, seen again as if for the first time… Chase that insight later (rent the movie, cue it up on your laptop), and what you may end up with are actors and pretense and motions, the drama of it all, minus what it was you brought to that moment originally, your own feelings made strange, superfluous. “Charlie Sheen,” you may find yourself saying, should Charlie Sheen be the star of the movie in question, “Remind me again of who it is I am.” But Charlie the F18 – he doesn’t know either. What you need, truly, is quiet and a book. What you need is a room of your own with a view of the bay. What you need is an apple and a bowler hat, a footstool on which to cross your ankles. Do such prescriptions, undergirded by the assumption that you need to be told what’s worth valuing, sound “cultic”? See how slippery is the off-ramp from the mass-media superhighway. 2. Sometimes, taking ourselves less seriously is a good idea. Rather than binding everything in the filigree of words, pure excitement has its time and place, a place free of time - always among the young, and who doesn’t want to linger in youth’s hop-along self-assurance? To be undifferentiated, one of the smiling among the smiling, eyes sleepy, comfort a given. A book, in contrast, appears a tying down. What happens to you alone, the very aspect that gives a novel its sway, can be felt never to have happened at all, should there be no other face to acknowledge it. So mass media derive their dominance, for no matter the quality of the entertainment, you can turn to your companion exiting the theater and say, "Hey, how about that?" In contrast, a book that you read, one less than well publicized, becomes a kernel carried around for months, or years, before reciprocal consciousness is encountered. The deepening of feeling that goes with carrying that something, a novel’s two covers arguably the very foundation of the private self, may mirror, on its release into the everyday, the fanaticism of the true believer. Have you read the Levin? You must read the Levin. (Mind, this is a hypothetical voice; I’m not telling you that you have to read anything.) Four recent novels, Adam Levin’s The Instructions among them, take the cultic as their departure point: Justin Taylor’s The Gospel of Anarchy, Victor LaValle’s Big Machine and Will Self’s The Book of Dave, being the other three. (Somewhere around the bend awaits Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely.) While The Gospel of Anarchy and Big Machine portray cult largely as madness - albeit a seductive sort of madness - The Instructions and The Book of Dave render cult as that other thing it can be: the basis of a new religion (madness, be damned). All four invite reading, tongue-in-cheek, of sections of their text as scripture. The Instructions, naturally, is entirely scripture. 3. Taylor, in his debut novel, is a soul well familiar with the online storm, formerly a brave of HTMLGiant. That would be neither here nor there were his novel not so clearly a nod to the force the web holds on the mind. The Gospel of Anarchy opens with a drum solo: David, an ambivalent telephone survey operator in Gainesville and aficionado of online porn (“I imagined the girls in a kind of march, an endless parade celebrating—what? Themselves, I guess, or me.”) in the way that Jake Barnes saw bull and finely coiffed matador, decides to share nude photos he has of his ex with a listserv of fellow pervs. He only takes the courtesy of blackening out her face beforehand (a nod to Tucker Max?: “In so doing I had made her anybody—nobody. She was raw material now. She was YOUR FACE HERE.”). Self-destruction attained, he walks out the door and into the street, destination nowhere: “This was my life,” David reports. Until making some new friends, that is, residents of a commune called “Fishgut.” New friends, and new lovers, Katy and Liz, dynamo and devotee, who take him into their bed and belief system, a work in progress. For the first time in his life, David finds himself in church, there discovering “veneration of presence, the breaking down of the walls that make each of us one and one alone. A thing that is three that is also one. Godhead.” But this apprehension of religious experience (see the novels of Marilynne Robinson) seems a glaze, to race on its way to truer interest: the commune’s own encompassing mythos, “anarcho-mysticism,” the fervor for its founder’s return. “On Hypocrisy,” “A Different Trip Another Time Another Rain” and “The Moral” read the entry headings of the journal left behind by the mystery man. Taylor excels at deploying the word “still,” which is appropriate for a writer so gifted at depicting whimsy and volatility. Or, put another way: freedom, terrible freedom. Soon enough, The Gospel of Anarchy departs from David’s point of view, the narrative never quite touching down with such sure footing. Uneven as the web itself, a bold casserole of sensual encounter and deranged proclamation (“My silence was the secret of the secret, the silence of the mystic rose that was fully blossomed within me…”), the fact that Anything is still Something in Taylor’s work figures as nothing short of miracle. Loudly, even rapturously, Taylor succeeds in making the clamoring passion of his characters real, their raw, mercurial yearning a cry for “a world newly established.” In terms of acts of God, The Gospel of Anarchy is a tornado, tearing up the hill where rock ’n roll and cult meet. As Katy muses about an old Indian folktale evidently doctored by Christian conquerors: There’s something beautiful about it also, sort of running concurrently with the monstrosity. She can’t put her finger on it exactly, but it has to do with ideological miscegenation, how all cultures are just hodgepodges, collages, patch jobs. Try putting it this way: the monstrosity is the beauty. 4. Victor LaValle’s Big Machine, on the other hand, has the feel of earthquake, low, rumbling tremors years in the building. The Millions’ Edan Lepucki endorsed this one not long ago, duly citing its principal charm: voice. As a play on James Wood’s hysterical realism, a category that dates most certainly to Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Big Machine lets loose a zany, nonsensical plot that never fails to stay grounded in the mind of narrator Ricky Rice. If the plot flabbergasts, LaValle’s attention to character will not, even to those of bit players simply passing through. His novel, like Taylor’s, takes fanaticism as its focus. “To be an American is to be a believer!” a vagrant portentously shouts at the novel’s outset. “But y’all don’t even understand what you believe in.” Spinning off tropes of serial noir and horror (e.g. vagrant as prophet), LaValle pits sweet good against callous evil, semi-recovered heroin addict Ricky (“Almost three years without a kiss. That’s a lot of love to lose.”) dropping his job as janitor in Utica, NY, to make for the great north woods of Vermont. Happy to ditch the grit of janitorial work, Ricky still entertains doubt after receiving mysterious summons: “When he gets you out into the country, well, there’s too many tales about this going badly for a guy like me, and I couldn’t help but ponder the possibilities.” The possibilities lead to a compound miles from anywhere - not so different from a writers’ colony, actually (LaValle makes the likeness overt in his acknowledgments) - where Ricky finds he has been selected to take part in a special directive to cull weird and captivating headlines from the mundane: “The Washburn Library doesn’t care who you were, only who you want to be. Out here we don’t call you cons. Out here you’re Unlikely Scholars.” When the library’s existence is threatened by a former disciple named Solomon Clay, Ricky and an authoritative white-haired stunner named Adele Henry are sent to the fictitious Bay Area peninsula, Garland (like Oakland just across from San Francisco), to try to sort things out. Devils who might be angels, a doomed millionaire and vagrants willing to act as suicide bombers all figure in the ensuing mayhem. The present action notwithstanding, Ricky’s repressed past functions as counter narrative: Ricky was raised in a cult, one whose three matriarchs (“the Washerwomen”) rewrote the Bible to conform to a more familiar context: “Finally you actually listen and ask yourself, Was there really a woman named Josephine in the Bible? Malik and his coat of many colors? Luther parted the Mississippi?” With humor and the deliberation of the self-doubting, Ricky grapples with his abrupt emergence on the world at large. Ungrounded, he is prone to manipulation by the Dean of the Unlikely Scholars, a man running his own sort of cult. If “Taxation Without Representation Is Tyranny” was the rallying cry against the British, then “Love Without Reciprocity Is Madness” could be that against Cult. And what a kind of madness it is. Late in the novel, Ricky wonders what his father saw in the Washerwomen’s doctrine, a passage that Taylor’s novel directly echoes: Their main idea was pretty straightforward: the Church is broken. Which one? Take your pick. All choices were correct. The Church, that abiding institution, had stopped working. A new church had to take its place. Something small and defiant and renewed with concern. Which is about as traditional an idea as Christianity has. 5. The Book of Dave explores civilization on the post-apocalyptic island of Ham, where the engraved ravings of a mentally unbalanced, 20th century taxi driver named Dave have been taken as revelation. As such, all children must split time between their mothers and fathers, who live in gender-segregated communities, Dave’s wife having left him and taken their boy some five hundred-plus years before. The Book of Dave would have made an excellent novella or short story. The satire wears thin after page 100 or so (the word “irony” crops up again and again, the Hamites’ manner of denoting metal - for a while, a good joke) and the dialogue, rendered between English slang and text message (“Eye bin 2 ve playce vair ee berried ve Búk, an ee cum 2 me, an ee giv me anuvvah Búk – yeah, a nú I”), is often virtually indecipherable. Regardless, The Book of Dave headed the pack of this most recent spate of novels chronologically, and its take on the virulence of misogyny is more resonant than nicety allows. 6. Reaching back, what are the seminal 20th century novels about cults? Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (capitalism and its never-ending wonders as cult), and, long live the Chief, Tom Wolfe’s novelized non-fiction The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It’s all there: charismatic leader (Ken Kesey), enforced belief (be groovy), claustrophobic togetherness (are you on the bus or…?). The drama of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is Kesey’s reckoning with just how cult-like the following he has garnered is, a lesson on spectacle and enthrallment that must speak directly to the modern gods of pop culture - and their marketing gurus. One lesson to take away? Wear cool pants. Counter to Wolfe’s classic, the anti-heroes of each of the more recent titles are on the inside. They drink the Kool-Aid (if not in quite as dark a sense as that phrase connotes today). The stubborn skepticism of LaValle’s Ricky Rice is the closest thing to Wolfe’s cock-a-doodle-dooing at a remove, outsider on the inside and the outside at once. Of the Pranksters and the fervor of their belief in Kesey, Wolfe writes, setting the undercurrent of his antic history: “And still the babies cry.”
I have been living in a room in a house perched on a cliff that overlooks the Oregon coast for almost a month. A window with an ocean view spans the width of my desk, but when I sit down to write, I often find myself doing anything but that. I stare at the sea and the rolling clouds, or follow the beachcombers, the joggers, the surfers, and the fishing vessels further out with the binoculars my aunt uses to spot whales in the winter. The setting is striking to the point of distraction for this city dweller accustomed to skylines punctuated by skyscrapers, to glimpses of rivers from the Manhattan Bridge, to lawns circumscribed by park walls. In Newport, Oregon, nature dominates. The only depiction of this town I’ve encountered beyond a travel guide is in Jon Raymond’s story “The Coast” from his collection, Livability. Raymond’s eye is attuned to the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. In his story, he describes the coastline in quadrants and colors as if he’s painting: “The wind was blustery and the sky was all over the place--dark in one quadrant and pale blue in another, with splashes of magenta, orange, and streaks of hot pink in the lower regions. The billowing cumulus clouds gliding over the ocean were like slow-moving buildings of water and air. I skirted the edge of the tide, avoiding heaps of bullwhip kelp and seagull carcasses and blobs of broken jellyfish.” The sea, the wind, and labile sky capture the tableau precisely. The first few days after I arrived, I found myself spouting dumbfounded phrases such as, “The clouds! The mountains! Like a painting!” as if I were severely nature deprived. I’m sure I sounded like the equivalent of a yokel visiting the city, jaw dropping at the sight of yellow taxi-filled roads and towering buildings--just like the movies! I am smitten with the sea lions, the sand dunes, the washed up bivalves and cracked crab shells that litter the beach. The open skies have cleared the smog in my mind. The landscape works its way into my stories and it infuses my essays (as you can see). It’s difficult not to notice the differences here, and not respond to the surroundings. When I was at the local library, a man found a pocket knife on the floor and turned it in to the lost and found. Hitchhikers walk backward along the coastal highway, carrying sleeping bags nestled atop oversize backpacks. More abundant and less haggard than the east coast variety, they make me think of ranch hand and expert hitchhiker Sissy Hankshaw and her magnificent thumbs, straight out of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. The fluorescent red and green sea anemones in the tide pools mimic the Day-Glo hues made popular by the Merry Pranksters, so it’s fitting that head Prankster Ken Kesey grew up in Oregon, just outside of Eugene. I took up with Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test out of curiosity about Kesey, his writing, and his influence on the sixties West Coast acid scene. Wolfe emphasizes Kesey’s tremendous physicality and soft country drawl, which owe much to his upbringing in Oregon’s outdoors. Kesey’s father “had started him and his younger brother … shooting and fishing and swimming as early as they could in any way manage it, also boxing, running, wrestling, plunging down the rapids of the Williamette and the McKenzie Rivers, on inner-tube rafts, with lots of rocks and water and sartin’ death foamin’ down below.” He came off as a country boy, but when he moved to San Francisco as a Stegner fellow, his physical prowess and charisma made him popular with the bohemian literary set. The Northwestern terrain also infused Kesey’s fiction. His second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, is set in a logging town near the Oregon coast where a family of loggers break from the unionized strikers by supplying lumber to a local mill. Kesey researched the book while living in Florence, a coastal town just south of Newport. He lived the logging life, in a way. By day he rode in the pick-up trucks that bussed loggers to and from their camps and by night he hung out at the loggers’ watering holes. The novel opens already anchored in the landscape, the pages suffused by passages describing the contours of the land: “ Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range … come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River … ” After Kesey wrote the novel, his artistic focus shifted from writing to life. He devoted himself to living in the moment, to making experimental movies and bringing fantasies to life, to reaching higher states of awareness tripping on LSD. “I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph,” was Kesey’s reason for quitting writing. Wolfe adds, “He talked about something called the Acid Test and forms of expression in which there would be no separation between himself and the audience. It would be all one experience, with all the senses opened wide, words music, lights, sounds, touch--lightning--” Even Kesey’s metaphors reference the outdoors--acting as a conduit for electricity rather than recording the earth’s movements with ink. A Harvard undergrad on the staff of the campus literary magazine in 1970 spoke to The New York Times about her extracurricular reading habits and the irresistible appeal of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. She said, “Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Air [sic] Acid Test really gets to some of us. I had to stop reading it half way through because I never would have gotten my work done. I wanted to freak out on acid, and like Ken Kesey take a bus onto the road and just live!” How does one get work done when it becomes obvious there are fantasies to enact, road trips to take, rules to flout? How does one write when nature, and life, beckon from beyond the window? Put the book down. Close the blinds. Or don’t. There’s a delicate balance to strike. Even Kesey, magnificent lightening rod that he was, wrote more books after the acid tests ended. And without Tom Wolfe’s assemblage of interviews and documentation of the Pranskters' escapades in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, I would know far less about Kesey, his medium, and his life. I know I will soon pack my bags and go home. But I am lucky to have witnessed the landscape, and to know there is the possibility of return. [Image credit: Anne Yoder]