Straight Life: The Story Of Art Pepper

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A Year in Reading: Maggie Nelson

I was captivated this past reading year by a trio of books about, among other things, hard living: Straight Life by Art and Laurie Pepper, Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles, and Like Being Killed by Ellen Miller. Myles’s Chelsea Girls meant everything to me when it came out in 1994, so it took me by surprise, in reading it anew (it was re-released by Ecco this past year) to find it even better than I remembered, a true miracle. Re-subtitled “a novel,” it is a work of kinetic, ecstatic, muscular, hilarious, sorrowful, valiant, original, necessary, and timeless genius. Straight Life (also from 1994) and Like Being Killed (1998) were new revelations. Straight Life, which is the 500-page, dope-soaked story of jazz musician Art Pepper, is a fascinating and repugnant read, made all the more so by the backstory of how the book came into being (it’s largely an oral history told to his wife Laurie — see “The Tale of the Tape: The Miracle of Straight Life” in the September 2014 issue of Harper’s, for more on that story). The novel Like Being Killed is also a junkie’s tale, along with a story of friendship, the Lower East Side, Jewishness, AIDS, the fraughtness of being fat, being female, and more. I was so taken with its erudition, abjection, and opulence that I immediately looked for anything else Miller had written, and was crestfallen to discover that she’d died in 2008 at age 41, leaving this novel her only offering. It’s out of print, which is a howling pity — but so was Myles’s Chelsea Girls, until this year. Hope springs eternal.

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A Year in Reading: Charles D’Ambrosio

Auther Charles D’Ambrosio has written two collections of short stories, The Point and, this year, The Dead Fish Museum. He also has a collection of essays, Orphans. D’Ambrosio’s stories regularly appear in the New Yorker and other notable magazines. The best book D’Ambrosio read this year was the autobiography of a jazz musician. “Maybe this copping out,” D’Ambrosio says,but the book I’ve loved the most this year is Art Pepper’s autobiography, Straight Life, which was revised and reissued by Da Capo Press in 1994. I know next to nothing about jazz, haven’t listened to a lick of Art Pepper, but a smart guy in a bar in Portland told me I had to pick up the book – we were drinking – and it is, as drunkenly promised, really good. It makes me wish I were an aficionado. Art Pepper lived through all kinds of hell, which may be standard stuff for jazz greats, I don’t know, but what makes Straight Life an excellent read isn’t the sexual compulsion, the heroin, the crime, the brutal life in San Quentin – all juicy reading, for sure – but the intimacy, the way you get inside the dreamy logic of being Art Pepper. With a reality like that, who needs dreams, I guess, but Pepper’s story is, from beginning to end, so sad and soulful it’s like he never happened on our frequency – and this book (along with the music, which I plan to hunt down) is the vibrant record of the peculiar sound he existed in.Thanks Charles!

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