GOING NATIVE

STATS: BOOK / STEPHEN WRIGHT / 305pp. / 1994

goingnative

Not by THAT Stephen Wright (and having nothing to do with NATIVE SON by Richard Wright), though all three are good. Rather, a super cool story-collection-as-novel or vice versa from way before those were super cool. #13 on Larry McCaffery’s “20th Century’s Greatest Hits: 100 English-Language Books of Fiction” list, and the first really surprising entry (the ones up until then tending to be things like Ulysses, The Public Burning, and The Sound and The Fury)so the point at which that whole list starts to earn its reputation as an unusual thing listing unusual (and generally fantastic and not always listed) things. Wright is often chalked up there with Pynchon and DeLillo (and blurbed glowingly by them), but the boilerplate seems to be that he’s never quite gotten the readership he deserves … so read him if you want. He’s really good.

I like an interview where he says that, writing this book, he basically melted down an entire novel per chapter. You can tell; it’s that dense.

It’s a strange concept, at once very simple and barely a concept at all: in the first chapter, a suburban Chicago guy named Wylie decides he can’t take it anymore and wanders away from a Richard Yatesy garden party at his house one night. I guess this is him Going Native, because what follows is a series of increasingly lurid melted-novels, ranging in subject and lead role from a crackhead to a porn party to some serious roadhouse and then Vegas noir to the longest and best part deep in the bush in Burma … all of which are linked only by everyone getting slaughtered at the end. We only sort of glimpse Wylie here and there throughout, just enough to assume that he’s doing the slaughtering under various guises as his American sojourn gains speed and he gets ever farther from who he’d been pretending to be back in Chicago and closer to who he really is, or else just closer to total dissolution and not being anyone or anything at all except a complete fucking maniac.

The real emotional effect is the sudden and senseless violence against the people of each section, some slimeballs and some extremely sympathetic, all rendered in hi-enough-def to get us totally wrapped up in their lives. That’s surely the way violence is, irrelevant to the people it happens to and yet totally definitive of how things actually turn out for them, as opposed to how they would have turned out if they’d remained on the course they were on.

Celebrity, drugs, nihilism, movies/videos, exoticism, America as trashy pop ideal vs. actual hellish ‘scape, getting away from yourself in a lot of bad ways … you can say whatever about themes, but it’s really the scummy waters they all keep twining through that make this trip worthwhile. There are moments when the whole thing flirts with dating itself into a kind of Society of Spectacle / Natural Born Killers 90’s media overload screed, but Wright is a sharp and serious and funny and just all-around hardcore enough writer to write his way through this most of the time.

I think this is my favorite line, describing the raw bar at the porn party: “Fleshy tones seemed to predominate, dead sea creatures on ice, skinned but not cooked. If fire … marked a crucial interaction between the human and the divine — of which cooked food was the symbol and celebration — then this raw medley indicated that tonight he and his fellow guests were on their own among the bare facts of one another.”

And sort of while we’re on the topic: “I’ve often wondered, what if, in order to function in intercourse, it were necessary that a man’s organ become, not hard, but soft — mushy, squishy, yucky soft. Think about it.”

I don’t know. I do know you gotta hand it to Robert Coover for this blurb: “Imagine a pornographic twilight zone of beebee-eyed serial killers, drug-stunned pants-dropping road-warriors and ‘marauding armies of mental vampires,’ a nightmarish country of unparalleled savagery, where … the monster image feed is inexhaustible … ”

“Was there ever in the whole warped universe of male weirdness a man as plain weird as you?” Basically a great book to read whenever you start to feel like America is going off the rails and want to see that confirmed by someone who’s freakishly good at describing things, rather than by cable news.

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“Be careful … the way is filthy with creeps.”

MIDNIGHT PICNIC

STATS: BOOK / NICK ANTOSCA / 188pp. / 2009

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A sad and elegant story about spreading the dead and the living out across a shared plane of misty, drippy American highways and late-nite fast food, putt-putt courses, strip malls, mostly shuttered amusement parks, ghost trains, mouth-birth dogs with human voices, and submerged or outer-spaced versions of Atlantic City and New Orleans. At one of these all-night venues, a Roy Rogers, our hapless not-quite-dead-but-straying-pretty-far-from-the-living protagonist muses on the mostly insensate people stuffing their faces in the booths around him:

“They must be living people, moored to nothing, who drift into and out of fast food places in the dead of night. It doesn’t matter to them if they have wandered into the long shadow of the afterlife.”

Basically what happened to get us here was that a guy ran over a dog. Going off for a gun to put it out of its misery, he, in classic horror-movie style, comes back to find that it’s wandered off into the woods, very much not yet dead. Somehow the disappearance of the dog results in the appearance, into his room, of the bones of a small boy. These then reconstitute themselves into the embodied ghost of that boy (whose touch makes us very, very sleepy). Next, the embodied ghost claims to have been partially reincarnated into the current living guise of the guy who ran over the dog … and demands help seeking revenge on the woods-dweller who, in 1983, fed him the Midnight Picnic and then stood on him underwater in a lake in the moonlight until such time as he was dead.

And they’re off.

What starts as a vengeance quest turns into something very different, or else expands the nature of what a vengeance quest is into something far beyond what it usually seems like it couldn’t be more than. The novella, which deservedly won the Shirley Jackson Award, has got some good country noir to it, with William-Gay-worthy malfeasance brewing deep in the West Virginia backwoods, but it’s tinged throughout with a melancholy, ruminative mood that pushes it a long way down another, less traveled road. Antosca nails horror so well that he can afford to basically ignore it. The sense of a shared mission between the depressive young man and the rage-fueled ghost-boy waxes and wanes, from obsession to distant tangent, in a way that feels right for the spaced-out netherworld it’s increasingly coming to take place in, a place where you feel like you’re floating because the mind, to paraphrase a cool passage, often forgets to recreate the feeling of feet making contact with the ground.

Reading, maybe like dying, you lose track of where you end and the world, and all those within it, begin: “I think that when you die you lose parts of yourself, you erode. Pieces slough off and go somewhere else, into other things. You can feel it happening … there is no … immortal ‘soul.’ Just something that lasts for a while as it falls apart … as it decomposes like everything does, to feed other things.”

This is one of those rare books that feels in retrospect much longer than it was, in the good and not the bad way. It achieves the sense of the epic, of the journey unfolding across profound and tremendous space, in a very compressed, almost anecdotal manner. It’s chilly and murky and hits all the woodsy horror chopper notes, but then leaves all this behind to soar gracefully into another ring of the eternal circus of death, night, empathy, getting lost and getting revenge … again and again and again. When the young man asks his increasingly petulant, funny-scary boy-ward what their gameplan here is, now that they’ve already burned the target of their vengeance alive but still seem to be dogging him across infinity, the boy responds, in my favorite line, “So what? That was there. This is here. Every place you go you should get punished again!”

Space — both the metaphysical space that divides the living from the dead, and the waking from the dreaming, as well as geographical, noir-American space, that divides one dump or graveyard from the next — feels both super-drawn-out, like you could drive across “miles of farmland trod by the long dead” forever and never see anything more than a bit of a fence and a wall of trees, and super-compressed, like you almost don’t have to go anywhere or do anything to be in all places at once. This has to do with a deliberately imperfect system of worlds-behind-or-within-worlds, wherein there are always other orders and schemes lurking behind whichever ones you manage to get into and see, but they appear in weird ways, or seem at one moment to be nested inside one another and then, in another moment, to be spread out laterally like different counties on a big map, or like bits of bone jutting up to skin level from the depths of a puncture. Here, for example, some back-world juts into the front:

“On the road he stands alone, breathing. Almost imperceptibly at first, the darkness and space around him seem to pull back, outward like a tide, and in their absence he senses a presence that used to be hidden. He can hear the sound of its pulse, its breathing. It is everywhere.”

antosca

“I’ve been wandering through the afterlife with a guide who isn’t very good.”

HAWKSMOOR

STATS: BOOK / PETER ACKROYD / 290pp. / 1985

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An 80’s PoMo meets occult historical mystery death march novel in a mode similar to Umberto Eco but grimmer, sludgier, more supremely misanthropic. Though maybe less wondrous in scope, Ackroyd’s a sharper writer and an overall, I’d guess, more serious dude. He’s got the same freaky-erudite meets shaggy-dog-yarn thing going on, but his fiction pulls harder inward, into a more gravitationally potent vortex (not that I haven’t been known to love me some Eco).

You get here an 80’s London detective named Nicholas Hawksmoor in a cynical, Amis-ish mode, but crazy, working on a string of murders on the sites of certain churches designed by a famed fictional 18th century architect and hermetecist named Nicholas Dyer, based on an actual historical architect named Nicholas Hawksmoor (you can visit his actual churches), if that makes sense.

All of which is just an excuse to a) describe some strange and alluring churches and the grisly things that they make happen or that happen near them, and to b) haul the London grime off of a rabbit hole and hurl you along with both versions of Hawksmoor way far down it.

Written in sections that alternate between the 1700’s and the 1980’s, in pretty intense (think Mason & Dixon) period vernacular, Ackroyd builds up an increasingly aggressive and frantic screed against the supposed advances and certainties of the Enlightenment, in effect working to tear open and then furnish a generous-sized space for Evil in the world. Of course all sorts of thematic, tonal, and often surface-level recurrences start to accrue across the two sections (“as if in a Vision I see some one from the dark Mazes of an unknown Futurity who enters Black Step Lane and discovers what is hidden in Silence and Secresy”), making some sort of argument for how the more things change the more they stay the same or how we’re all spinning in the same eternal gyre no matter what changes of fashion we congratulate ourselves for, or what have you, but what’s really remarkable and worthwhile here is just how thick and pungent Ackroyd’s wall of filth and soul-depravity actually is … not unlike the Haxan Cloak album that just came out and that I’m probably thinking about now because I’m listening to it (and it’s trying to convince me, just now, of its undeniable relevance to Hawksmoor).

Either that or it has more in common with some of Scott Walker’s newer stuff. “He did not want to talk out loud, because his mother had always told him that it was the first sign of madness, but he wanted to make sure that he was still alive.”

Here’s 18th century London, where they still capitalized nouns like in German:

“But this Capital City of the World of Affliction is still the Capitol of Darknesse, or the Dungeon of Man’s Desires: still in the Centre are no proper Streets nor Houses but a Wilderness of dirty rotten Sheds, allways tumbling or takeing Fire, with winding crooked passages, lakes of Mire and rills of stinking Mud, as befits the smokey grove of Moloch.”

Down here you can “hear them whispering, the long dead, in Cripplegate, in Farringdon, in Cordwainers Street and in Crutched Fryars: they are pack’d close together like Stones in the Mortar, and I hear them speak of the City that holds them fast … this Thought comes to me: why do the Living still haunt me when I am among the Dead?”

It’s not all bad though, if you feel like building some demon altars in the shape of churches:

“This was indeed a massive Necropolis but it has Power still withinne it, for the ancient Dead emit a certain Material Vertue that will come to inhere in the Fabrick of this new Edifice. By day my House of Lime will catch and intangle all those who come near to it; by Night it will be one vast Mound of Shaddowe and Mistinesse … ”

What people say about the archaic sections being way more compelling than the modern ones is true, though a break every now and then from this voice, short of closing the book, is not unwelcome.

The real beauty and allure, and terror, of Ackroyd’s writing is how much he seems to long for death, how much more repellant he makes the world of the living seem, and thus the pervasive morbidity of his cityscape, and even more so of his stacked, degenerating mindscapes, has a balmy, tonic quality compared to the alternative.

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“Do you know that when murderers kill themselves, they try and make it look like another murder?”

THE LIME TWIG

STATS: BOOK / JOHN HAWKES / 175pp. / 1960

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A nightmare in the most literal, equine sense, all to do with big black horses loose in the night, with a dense, irrational, sometimes slow-burning and sometimes-hysterical boardinghouse noir on top, as oppressive in its own way as that notion becomes on Bowie’s Lodger. In the guise of spoofing 60’s madcap band-of-criminals heist capers — with maybe Kubrick’s Jim-Thompson-penned ’56 racetrack melee “The Killing” foremost among the spoofees — Hawkes [not your grandmother’s Winter’s Bone‘s John Hawkes] takes you into a British-set netherzone of obliquely or casually predatory drifters, rampaging beasts, and dissolved thought/matter distinctions more or less unmatched in the rest of books (except the rest of John Hawkes books).

A pervasive, persistent half-world: things are always half in focus, half-coming-toward-you and half-receding, half-waking and half-sleeping, half-friend and half-foe, half-self and half-stranger, half-tangible and half-figments, though fraught and maybe lethal figments, and maybe not ones generated by you alone.

A lot of people have tried to get at in writing that isn’t Hawkes what Hawkes’ writing is all about, oftentimes having recourse to fetishizing allusions of fog and mist. Some of this manages to wrap you up and/or guide you more safely down into the Hawkes pit, but I don’t think at the end of the day you can really do much to probe the place where the things of something like The Lime Twig are gestating, hatching, unfolding, and sludging their way across London and out into the dapper English countryside.

The novel’s entire world, if there can be said to be any daytime/nighttime or reality/fantasy split at all (and don’t expect any such split to last), is one of lone wanderers in the dark of the city, of people dying for no reason or seeming dead but not being it, of people drawn toward confrontation and violence on slow, almost distracted, but non-negotiable vectors. They traipse about, looking for trouble or waiting for it to find them, sinking a little further into the Hawkes pit with each aimless step like the ground anywhere you go is the world’s slowest-sinking quicksand. The novel opens:

“Or perhaps you yourself were once the lonely lodger. Perhaps you crossed the bridges with the night crowds … You walked in the cathedral’s shadow while the moon kept shining on three girls ahead. And you followed the moonlit girls. Or followed a woman carrying a market sack, or followed a slow bus high as a house with a saint’s stone shadow on its side … Then a turn in the street and broken glass at the foot of a balustrade and you wiped your forehead. And standing still, shoes making idle noise on the smashed glass, you took the packet from inside your coat, unwrapped the oily paper, and far from the tall lamp raised the piece of hot white fish to your teeth … You must have eaten with your fingers … No need for the rent per week, the names of streets … And did your finger ever really touch the bell?”

And much later, after plenty more drifting and sinking, once the fresh killings start, a reminiscence: ” … he had had his own kill once, kept dirty rooms in a tower in the college’s oldest quad.” He sails away in a punt-boat on a nighttime river, “listening to the fiends sighing in nearby ponds and marshes … ”

Hawkes writes sentences — sentences upon sentences — that combine the roughly physical with a sort of sticky, webby gossamer interworld material. More than a spirit element, it’s like a contaminant, like a smell that comes from things that shouldn’t:

“At thee platform’s sudden edge, she saw a field sunk like iron under the stone fences, a shape that might have been a murdered horse or sheep, a brook run cold.”

“Once too in the dark of a prison night, and many times, on leave with some strange fat girl wearing rolled stockings, or with a tall girl carrying her underclothes in a respirator bag, standing idly by and swinging the bag … ”

As the big racetrack free-for-all conclusion draws near, and the fate of the stolen horse and the horse-stealing men and their accomplice dames and consorts comes as into focus as it’s going to come, the heat of his characters’ bawdiness and lewdness speeds the sinking of the quicksand that undergirds whatever’s left masquerading as a foundation — “Once he had seen a man die on the toilet — from fear,” until “only a lower world of turning and crawling and groaning men remained.”

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“You’d best not interfere, I said. There’s power in this world you never dreamed of, I told him.” I think John Hawkes, had he lived, would have had his own ironclad and inexplicable way of watching Upstream Color.

NOVEL ABOUT MY WIFE

STATS: BOOK / EMILY PERKINS / 271 pp. / 2008

novelaboutmywife

Truly and thoroughly about the jitters, in the full sense of that Dismemberment Plan song’s usage of that word. Things for the central couple here, trying to scrape by in their late thirties with a baby on the way, just get tighter and tighter and tighter, to the point where money, space, sanity, love, safety, geography, professional success, and upward mobility combine to form the flank of a giant boa constrictor which basically just keeps squeezing until the book has to end.

 

What’s touted as the central mystery — a guy’s formerly pregnant and now dead wife claims(ed) she’s (was) being stalked by a hooded figure … is he real or a figment? — ceases to matter all that much (though you still wonder, and sort of get to find out) as Perkins’ gentrifying, price-rising, cracked-out, knife-wielding teenager infested London of 2008 closes in and in and in and in around the two of them. Looking back on his wife’s death, Tom, the has-been scriptwriter who’s proxy-writing this novel about his wife, Ann, either to get to the heart of what happened or just to have something to write, finds himself trying to suss out who she really was, and whether he really knew her at all — even whether he ought to have been as afraid of her as she was, or claimed to be, of “the man” stalking her. In essence, whether, in her case, with regard to whatever she was so afraid of, it took one to know one:

 

“Really there are few conversations that are easy to remember, and even fewer actual statements. When I put words into Ann’s mouth, on these pages, it’s made up, of course, another way to get her to speak again. The way she talked, I can be faithful to that, and the occasional line. But mostly Ann and I, like everybody else, just asked each other to please pass the salt, and what we really meant was ‘please pass the salt.'”

 

Jogging in a dusky park, Tom gets locked in, and sees one of the gangs of 12-year-olds who haunt a lot of places in this book on the other side of the fence. He finds himself:

 

“standing there, waiting, my insides boiling as the boys levered themselves over the spikes at the top of the gates: the leader looked as though he’d done it a hundred times and knew just how to place his hands, like a Russian gymnast, supporting himself on his wrists to hoist himself over the top. The efficiency of movement made it clear there was no point trying to run. We could have been different species then, those boys and I.”

 

Teenagers seem often to be the most dangerous demographic, here and in life. Soon thereafter, increasingly aware of perdition’s imminence, Tom reflects:

 

“God, I have known what it is to stand on the cliff top looking down at the Whirlpool of Self-Pity. My toes have gripped the crumbling earth, loneliness bending me at the waist, arms windmilling to stay upright, stay on the edge, just watch that loose stone tumble down into the sucking water, see how quick it disappears from view. Self-pity must be resisted, not out of moral fortitude but as a means to survive.”

 

It just goes down and down and downhill as the baby gets nearer and then gets born (there’s a terrifically panicky scene in a deluxe baby-stuff store, as Tom and Ann get to the checkout aisle and realize all the baby-stuff they want is way out of their price range, but credit-card-buy it all anyway), and we keep flashing back to something weird and it seems somehow (maybe unspeakably) awful that happened in Fiji in the recent past, involving Tom, Ann, and the loutish (and maybe worse) film producer who fired him and basically killed his career.

 

The whole thing, by a still pretty young New Zealand author, is damn scary, and romantic, and sad, and totally engrossing in both a gaspy, air-sapped room sort of way, and in a chatty, sleek, modern, urban Euro sort of way, all wine and prosciutto, olive oil and shared bottles of wine … until it’s not. And there’s a kid in it named Titus Groan.

 

Whether you want to read the book as a grand “sorry state of the West at the end of the 2000’s” statement or not, there’s no escaping the cold devilish grip that Perkins’ portrait of white-people economic and marital woes manages to get on you. It pretty much makes you not want to try to live in any given place.

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“The neighborhood was in the room with me, littered asphalt, chewing gum splodges, infested puddles.”

SAVAGE NIGHT

STATS: BOOK / JIM THOMPSON / 149pp. / 1953

savage-night

I feel like human beings play a very small part in Jim Thompson’s character repertoire, or else the physical and behavioral bounds that most writers would consider constitutive of human being mean very little to Jim Thompson, and take up very little of his headspace. He’s just not into it, making anyone be human and not a kind of slithering slug midget cannibal rapist twerp also, or instead.

This is one of his best — weirdest, grimmest, most surprising, most beyond the noir cave he’s usually shooed toward the back of — books ever. Instead of trying to come out the front of that cave he worms and gnaws his way through the back and comes out into some other place, another cave maybe, behind it. I like that other place back there, there’s protein in it.

SAVAGE NIGHT gives us some 30-year-old guy hiding out as a “student,” liberally defined, in a small town in I think New York State, renting a room, as Thompsonites usually do, and guilty of murder or abduction or theft or bludgeoning someone to death or all of the above, as Thompsonites usually are. But this guy’s got something very else going on too. He’s shrinking, compressing, collapsing, falling apart in some wild and excellent way. Just losing meat left and right, and trying to make up for it in ways that shouldn’t fool anyone but do.

There’s something genuinely unhinged going on with Thompson and with this diminutive, landlady-seducing, falling-apart leading man here, something that culminates first in a lot of loose flour in the air in a walk-in fridge, and then on a vagina farm in Vermont, where no one keeps what’s left of their head for very long.

I don’t know or know of too many books that get further into it. This one goes there and keeps going. People become little nibs and nubs of people and chase each other around, trying to grind each other down some more.

Here’s one way to end up if you make it through the SAVAGE NIGHT:

“I said we never talked, but we did. We talked all the time to the goats. I talked to them while she slept and she talked to them while I slept. Or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, I did my share of talking.

I said we lived in the one room, but we didn’t. We lived in all the rooms, but they were all the same. And wherever we were the goats were always there.”

jimthompson

I always want to write something about Jim Thompson, and I always feel good when I do. Where did this guy come from? The world, I think.