On a recent foray into the deepest, dankest corners of my basement, I came across a box of college mementoes — old photographs, bottlecaps, blue-book exams. As I dug through the strata, I uncovered a largely-forgotten treasure: a stack of novels that I’d read and loved as an idealistic, horny, often hungover student. These books helped usher me from my teens into adulthood — and opened my eyes to the breadth, and often the harshness, of the surrounding world. I’d adored these books. So why had I left them in this box, like discarded memories? Looking through them again, I may have found the answer.
Dancing Soup with Coyote Girl • Tom Robbins
As a sophomore, I discovered Robbins’s Another Roadside Attraction and was blown back by his sentences’ studied freedom and his generous worldview. I quickly read Still Life With Woodpecker and enjoyed it slightly less; Skinny Legs and All, less still. By the time I got to Jitterbug Perfume, I was openly annoyed by the patchouli miasma that hovered over everything. The last Robbins book I read was Dancing Soup With Coyote Girl, published in 1992. The more Coyote Girl I read, the more I felt almost physically ill, as if a sketchy-bearded hippie was talking me through a brown-acid trip. I couldn’t finish the book. And when I saw Dancing Soup With Coyote Girl’s long-forgotten cover — a purple can of mushroom soup hovering above a desert mesa — I had a sweaty flashback that left me shivering under the utility sink.
Monsters of Privilege • Bret Easton Ellis
Of all the Ellis novels I ripped through in college — American Psycho, Glamorama, Less Than Zero — I remember very little about Monsters of Privilege aside from the fact that it featured hard drugs, an anorexic girl seeming to die without anyone caring, and lots of dead-eyed sex. As I flipped through my copy — the cover shows a backlit silhouette of a high-cheeked young man and a bold san-serif font — my eye landed on a passage that seemed representative: “Derek looked around, blood draining from the wound. The glass vase lay smashed on the Italian marble. ‘I need some coke,’ Derek muttered to the empty foyer. Out by the pool, someone had put on a Tears for Fears cassette.”
Garbageman • Charles Bukowski
Bukowski’s third novel, the autobiographical Garbageman, is about Los Angeles trash collector Henry Chinaski, who, when not working for the city’s Public Works Authority, writes short stories on a broken typewriter in his grimy cold-water flat. Chinaski rages against his circumscribed lot with a steady, heroic intake of hard booze and cheap women, unconcerned by the bleakness of it all. While some have criticized Garbageman as a carbon-copy of much of his other work — Post Office and Factotum come to mind — the differences are obvious. In Post Office, he’s a postal worker, and in Factotum, he’s a factotum (or handyman). In Garbageman, he’s a…well, I won’t ruin it for you.
The Gutter • Hubert Selby, Jr.
What I’d consider to be Selby’s lightest, frothiest novel, The Gutter follows the exploits of a heroin-addicted gigolo named Bunny. At the book’s outset, we find Bunny writhing in a flophouse basement, covered in blood and vomit while scratching at infected boils. Two hundred forty-seven pages later, Bunny is near death, “bad skag” spreading through his veins, spittle at his purple lips, as he moans in the titular gutter. “I always wanted to write a comedy,” Selby said to The New York Review of Books in 1987, upon The Gutter’s publication. “This is my Without Feathers.”
Ishmael 3: Going Ape • Daniel Quinn
I read the gorilla-philosophy classic Ishmael at the precise moment I should have, when I was about 19 and, like its narrator, had “an earnest desire to save the world.” Its message — basically, that we’re a species of selfish bastards, and we need to stop hacking everything to pieces — seemed sound, and I became a vegetarian not long after reading it. A sequel, My Ishmael, offered more of the same, and I responded in kind, cutting dairy from my diet and riding my 10-speed everywhere, no matter the distance. I was nearly at my limit — and the Gaia-minded self-sacrifice urged in Ishmael 3: Going Ape pushed me over the edge. After reading it, I sought out a remote yurt-based community, where we drank home-brewed scallionmilk and fashioned socks from dryer lint. It was a rough period, to say the least (it was the year of the Great Eastern Chigger Invasion), and as the memories flooded back, I shoved Ishmael 3: Going Ape into the deepest recesses of the box, along with its companions: the Selby, the Ellis, the Bukowski, the Robbins. I sealed it with fresh tape, hurried up the basement steps, and shut off the light. Upstairs, slightly shaken, I laid on my living-room couch and continued reading a book that, I’m positive, will never seem embarrassing in retrospect.
Image Credit: Flickr/Angelo Yap.
Watch out! Vonnegut is definitely habit-forming!
-From a Dell Books Advertisement for Welcome to The Monkey House, 1974
On a recent morning, I boarded a New York subway car, glancing at the riders as I settled into a seat. A homeless man slept in a corner; three skate rats hovered above him, snickering greasily. A few others read tabloids with Manhattan disinterest; an Orthodox wife corralled her squirming kids. Despite the varied scene, I was most interested in the man sitting across from me. He was roughly my age, and was intently reading a book. I looked away—then, with blasé nosiness, went back for the title: Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut. The man was absorbed, no doubt reading it for the first time. I turned away again, mild jealousy creeping in. I wish I could do that, I thought.
I wished this not because Bluebeard is a great book—though it’s close, one of Vonnegut’s best late novels—but because it was a Vonnegut. It’s been years since I’ve read him, and in the weeks since that train ride, I’ve come to see how much his work once meant to me, and how much I miss it now.
I discovered Vonnegut, unoriginally enough, in college. In a small used bookstore, long since vanished, a row of hardcovers caught my eye. I knelt and came up with Breakfast of Champions. The title was written in tiny aqua type; underneath, much larger, was the author’s name, in an appealing Cooper font. The name “Kurt Vonnegut” was both familiar and intrinsically appealing: spiky, ugly, and elegant. As I flipped through, I found crude pen drawings—tombstones, cows, an asshole. In between were passages like this:
Sparky could not wag his tail—because of an automobile accident many years ago, so he had no way of telling other dogs how friendly he was. He had to fight all the time. His ears were in tatters. He was lumpy with scars.
The humanoids told Don that if he went home with a whore, she would cook him a meal of petroleum and coal products at fancy prices.
A dinosaur was a reptile as big as a choo-choo train.
It seemed sad and strange and new. I was in. I gave five dollars to the smiling elderly clerk, walked it home, and, splayed in my beer-stained beanbag chair, flew clean through it. As it turned out, I’d been right: Breakfast of Champions was crushingly sad, thoroughly strange, and unlike anything I’d read. It was anguished by our mindlessness, but laced with knowing glee. Despite its outraged pessimism, it was quite a lot of fun. I needed more.
I returned to the bookstore and made its Vonneguts mine. A different second-hand shop kept their KVs behind the counter, as liquor stores do with their best stuff. The books back there were more expensive, but I didn’t care. Could I have those? I asked. Yes, please. All of them.
Though I read other authors in the months that followed, Vonnegut was the magnetic core of my reading world. I jumped from the brilliant (Cat’s Cradle) to the good (Player Piano) to the blah (Jailbird) to the brilliant (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater). I was troubled by Mother Night, addled by Slaughterhouse-Five. On a visit home, I found Hocus Pocus on my father’s shelf, and promptly stole it away. Even at their leanest, Vonnegut’s stories worked by wheeling massive concerns—annihilation, fate, the return of Jesus Christ—through bloated cartoon worlds. He hit the pleasure centers with sickening ease; the junk was strong. I read his short stories and essays, interviews and speeches; I painted an elaborate gouache portrait of him. I befriended a collector of “Vonnegut ephemera” who claimed to have been a character in Slapstick. I pushed the books on others, then fretted for their return. I read The Eden Express, his son’s psychosis memoir. And then, within a year or so of finding Breakfast of Champions, I was done. It had been like bingeing on mangoes.
In this way, Vonnegut’s virtuosity was its own detriment: having fallen so hard for his humor-glazed rage, I had no choice but to rip through everything. There are plenty of other authors who I’ve liked just as much—T.C. Boyle, say, or Michael Chabon—but with them, I’ve never felt the completist urge. Riven Rock, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and the rest have been set aside for the future. But Vonnegut disallowed such patience. Once I began, the existence of more fed a steady, low-grade mania.
It’s a testament to his skill that in the years since, I’ve never become embarrassed by that mania. There’s a tendency to disown one’s teenage enthusiasms, to feel that our supposed refinement has made us somehow wiser. To be sure, I’d rather sand off my nose than read Skinny Legs and All to the strains of Jethro Tull. But Vonnegut, though best-loved in the days of beanbag chairs and Escher prints, is different. Unlike Pirsig or Meddle or Jäger, he transcends the collegiate—too sternly pissed to be relegated to a rash and eager past.
So I’ve resolved to reread the man. I’ve taken my favorite Vonnegut novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, down from the shelf. To my surprise, having it so near has made me anxious, as if an ex-girlfriend has returned. Its tattered front cover is taped to the spine; its pages are flaky and tan. The back cover says that “Only recently has the general public become aware of his unique genius.” It’s old and frail, but its words remain pungent, tragic, insane:
“And then they tied me to a stake, burned me alive, and dumped my ashes into the nearest stream. As I say, I haven’t been back since.”