Last year, fighting the anxiety and listlessness that seems to have become the norm of our overstimulated era, I read Under the Volcano for the first time. Since then, I have found myself continually pulling the book off the shelf, returning again and again to its sad, pristinely lyrical pages, as the seasons change and the state of the world remains tumultuous as ever. Under the Volcano is mesmerizing, brokenhearted, almost infinitely discursive, a mescal-sodden, naval-gazing dirge. Though it is resolutely a Modernist work, replete with countless esoteric references and ambiguous plot movements, the implications of the work continue to startle me with their relevance to the Digital Age. Far from the popular notion that Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece is merely “about alcoholism,” Under the Volcano remains a dead-serious bereavement of the insurmountable space that can separate two people sitting side by side.
Under the Volcano takes place in Quauhnahuac, a little town not far from Mexico City. Two volcanos dominate the skyline, their static peaks ever threatening eruption. Our tragic hero is former-British Consul Geoffrey Firmin, who lingers hunch-shouldered in an empty cantina, having booze for breakfast as the annoyed employees set the place up for the day’s business. It is the morning of the Day of the Dead, 1938, and the world, at great distance, is beginning to erupt into World War II.
Firmin’s wife, Yvonne, left him a year previous, and this morning, she’s suddenly come back to try to salvage their relationship, but both nurse old wounds, so a complete restoration seems highly unlikely. Yvonne is anxious, Firmin static and painfully introspective. Also, extremely drunk. Probably the drunkest drunk of literature, Firmin drinks toward a sobriety beyond inebriation as he spends the bulk of the book scheming of ways he could restore his lost connections. “For him life is always just around the corner, in the form of another drink at a new bar.”
Someone really ought to count just how many drinks Firmin
takes over the course of the novel. Hundreds, it would possibly seem, his
thirst monstrous, insatiable, inescapable. It is all he knows. So, when Yvonne
shows up, unexpectedly, he first has trouble registering her presence then, as
they begin to talk, he offers her a drink. “You
have one and I’ll cheer,” is the reply. They are finally
together again, but they still cannot bond. She wants to take him away from
Mexico, and he wants her to stay with him, here, drinking below the volcano.
Distance, as always, glows frustratingly between them.
They return to their house, attempt to make love, then
Yvonne sleeps as Firmin, out of alcohol, stumbles out into the garden he has
let go to seed. Lowry writes, “The Consul, an inconceivable anguish
of horripilating hangover thunderclapping about his skull, and accompanied by a
protective screen of demons gnattering in his ears, became aware that in the
horrid event of his being observed by his neighbours it could hardly be
supposed he was just sauntering down his garden with some innocent horticultural object in view.”
No, of course Firmin isn’t
simply strolling through his overgrown garden. What he’s
actually doing is trying to stop himself from trying to stop himself from
trying to find the tequila bottle he’d
hidden out in the bushes, for a moment such as this. He wants Yvonne to stay,
he wants things to work, but he also knows that Yvonne has cheated on him, it
becomes clear over the course of the novel, with both Hugh, his half-brother,
and Laurelle, his friend. Yvonne, after all, seems rather cozy with both men as
they accompany the troubled couple through the day’s
festivities, though she maintains that the purpose of her coming to Quauhnahuac
was to return to Firmin. There is little admission, and the locus of Yvonne’s
loyalty remains indistinct. So, ever-weighing options but choosing none of them, Geoffrey Firmin both
pursues and avoids Yvonne as he drinks. And drinks.
This paralysis, Lowry knew, is a living death. “What
is man,” Firmin wonders, “but
a little soul holding up a corpse?” While
Quauhnahuac collectively mourns those who are already dead, the novel’s
central characters mourn those who are still alive but with whom all hope of
intimacy has been trounced. It can be all-too-tempting to drown everything out
with static isolation. Pretty soon, it becomes habitual, a way of life. The
underpinnings of Firmin’s drinking are familiar to everyone.
Connecting with another person usually demands change, and change is the one
thing Volcano’s cast simply cannot do. Thus, in one
way or another, each of the novel’s
characters lingers in a purgatory of indecision. “Yvonne
knew where she was now, but the two alternatives, the two paths, stretched out
before her on either side like the arms—the
oddly dislocated thought struck her—of
a man being crucified.”
Yvonne, in a letter she’d
sent to Firmin during their separation, says, “I am perhaps God’s
loneliest mortal… My wretchedness is locked up within me… Help
me, yes, save me, from all that is enveloping, threatening, trembling, and
ready to pour over my head.” The core of her despair, we see, is
little different than Firmin’s.
In one of the book’s
most haunting scenes, Firmin, drinking away his indecision and doubts, lingers
away from Yvonne in a hole-in-the-wall bar while the proprietress, Señora Gregorio, thinks aloud, her ruminations also
similar to the thoughts tormenting Firmin. “Once
when I was a girl I never used to think I live like I laugh now.” Señora Gregorio speaks in broken English, and her
misused words are cubistic and terribly telling: “This—” she
glanced contemptuously round the dark little bar, “was
never in my mind. Life changes, you know, you can never drink of it.”
And, Firmin quietly corrects her: “Not
‘drink of it,’ Señora
Gregorio, you mean ‘think of it.’”
The ultimate tragedy of Under the Volcano is that of humanity’s wasted potential. Can, Lowry pondered, the psyche repair itself? We are capable of such great things, yet we choose mollification and comfort over almost anything—sometimes even over life itself. “I love hell,” Firmin claims. “I can’t wait to get back there. In fact I’m running, I’m almost back there already.” Under the Volcano is Firmin’s attempt to reckon with himself. He is alone, alienated and is finally unable to square himself with the world he has built for himself within the world he has, in many respects, stolen from others. And, in this, he has everything in common with those around him but, from Firmin’s point of view, the other characters are often reduced to minor characters, walk-ons. The only character that truly comforts Firmin is the beverage waiting before him. This minimization is not only Firmin’s: Each of the novel’s characters, in different ways, attempts to reduce the other to satiate the self.
In large part, Malcolm Lowry’s
genius was in the depiction of this self-centric blindness. In the grand view
of things, every person on earth is a primary character, if only to themselves.
Lowry knew keenly that, to a large extent, there is no escaping this bias.
Thus, the lens of interpretation always shimmied sideways as Lowry jumped from
character to character, even as he let each life bleed through Firmin’s
Inspired by silent-movie subtitles, Lowry peppered the prose with Spanish phrases that, as they repeat, gained meaning and become mysterious, radiant apothegms. “No se puede vivir sin amar,” goes the book’s most familiar refrain. One cannot live without love.
And so, without love, Firmin finally dies, dragged out of
yet another cantina and murdered by suspicious, crooked police who believe he
may be a political spy. Yet, even as he is carried to a ravine, bleeding to
death, Firmin continues to pine for Yvonne and for the life they ought to have
It is tempting to equate Lowry with Firmin. The
similarities are endless. Lowry, too, was a hopeless alcoholic and lived a
famously-troubled life. His first wife, Jan, also left him in Mexico. Yet, in
writing Under the Volcano, Lowry attempted what his literary doppelgänger
could not: he offered connection, and he believed that this connection would be
met. Seventy-one years after its publication, Under the Volcano remains
a compelling, widely-read work. In his broken way, Malcolm Lowry succeeded.
Since the book’s composition, the world’s situation has been remade several times over. Volcano’s world is gone but not surpassed. Our newsfeeds are violent, partisan, slapdash, and ugly. We are more connected than ever, yet our sense of isolation has only grown. Like all truly classic works of art, Under the Volcano remains a book startlingly about us, about this time in history. For, like the counter-clockwise rotation of Quauhnahuac’s Ferris wheel—ridden by the mourners who know they, too, will someday be dead—all things repeat. We stave off our potentiality with comfort and distraction.
Under the Volcano reminds us that we cannot live
without love, yet we cannot truly love unless we are willing to fight our
paralysis. Again and again, no se puede vivir sin amar flashes across
the page, and the phrase becomes a chant, a mantra, a prayer: No se puede vivir sin amar.
No se puede
vivir sin amar. No se puede vivir sin amar.
If only we would heed it.
I met Guy and Harriet Pringle in the winter of 1987. In those days, Turkish public television had a rather ingenious arrangement with public radio; they would show the dubbed series, and the radio would play the original soundtrack. I do not remember who had alerted me to the fact that a new series called Fortunes of War was to go on air that week, but there I was, placing the radio right under the TV set, turning down the volume of the latter, and shushing the whole family who had gathered in the one stove-heated living room for the winter evening.
I must have been learning English for a couple of months. Being a diligent student and wanting to get ahead in class—I was at the language prep year of a high school that had most of its curriculum in English—I did all I could to fill my head with English words. British Council Library (now defunct), BBC World, and BBC series on Turkish Television. I was doing this “for school” and so my family indulged me as I watched Guy and Harriet Pringle travel through the Balkans and the Middle East. It was a very strange feeling, traveling with them to places that I had been taught used to “belong to us.” What kind of connection could a British couple possibly have to lands where songs began with “aman” and the men played backgammon? This, to me, was the central mystery of the plot, and with its very delicate hands Fortunes of War would lead me through the history of the British and Ottoman Empires, in a language that I was only newly beginning to understand. The characters I got to know through its seven episodes have stayed with me, and I still come across their avatars both in England, and the places where the English like to travel. Guy Pringle, Prince Yakimov, Dubedat, Aidan Sheridan…Watching the series again to write this piece, I am once again struck as to how perfect and lean the production is—the acting, the dialogue. (Also, how sweet Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson playing the young Pringle couple are—I still resent their divorce).
Fortunes of War was adapted from a series of novels written by Olivia Manning under the titles The Balkan Trilogy (1960-65) and The Levant Trilogy (1977-80). The books were in many ways fictionalized accounts of her travels with her husband Reggie Smith, who worked in the British Council. The story starts with Guy Pringle, having just been married in London, returning with his wife, Harriet, to his English Literature post at the University of Bucharest in 1939, as Nazis are advancing in Europe. We first see a shot of a train traveling through Mitteleuropa, with a beautiful arrangement of a Romanian song in the background that becomes the series’ theme tune, a tune that has accompanied me on the pilgrimages I have made to the Pringles’ various posts. I don’t remember how much of Fortunes of War I understood back in 1987, but I know I absorbed the whole thing like a sponge, and to this day I have déjà vu moments when a place, a song, a bit of a conversation will take me back to the story of Pringles. This could of course mean two things: that Manning was a brilliant observer of character and situations, and/or I have actively been seeking the company of Pringles’ reincarnations and their milieu. In fact, I have managed to do almost all the legs of Pringles’ journey except for Bucharest, where it all begins.
After the shot of the train going through the Balkan countryside, the camera goes inside a compartment where Guy Pringle is sharing a German joke with another, elderly passenger, and Harriet Pringle looks on bemused, setting the tone of their relationship. The atmosphere of camaraderie dissolves when soldiers come into the compartment and ask for the passengers’ papers. The old man claims he has lost his, along with his wallet, and is forcibly removed from the train. Guy gives him all the money in his purse as Harriet looks on incredulously. When Guy explains that the old man is probably Jewish and without papers, Harriet asks what will become of him. Guy’s “What is to become of any of us?” now rings a bit “all lives matter” but I am constitutionally incapable of finding fault with Guy Pringle.
Fortunes of War is, at its heart, a story about people trying to find a safe place to live—only, in this story it is Europeans going eastwards, looking for a place where the war has not yet arrived. The Pringles are hounded by the Nazis through Bucharest, to Athens, to Cairo. But of course, they are among the lucky few who can actually leave. There is a scene that I had not thought about much in 1987 but that has come back to me in recent years. Europeans scrambling to get on a ship from Athens to Cairo to face a perilous journey across the Mediterranean, threatened by German submarines. The Nazis almost catch up with the Pringles towards the end, and the ship Harriet is supposed to have been on from Cairo is torpedoed while she is safely sightseeing in Damascus.
In Bucharest, the Pringles get a flat in one of those turn-of-the-century apartment buildings that haunt world literature like The Yacoubian Building and The Flea Palace. We are in ex-Ottoman territory after all—a fact that the book, but not the series, fleetingly touches upon—and the aesthetic stretches all the way to Bucharest. Like the Yacoubian Building, this Levantine apartment has a rooftop with a shed, which becomes the hiding place for Guy’s Jewish student Sasha, whom they manage to protect only for so long. It is also in Bucharest that we meet Dobson, head of the British Legation, played by the perfectly cast Charles Kay; the stiff upper and lower lip, forever the face of British Foreign Office for me. Guy spends most of his time with his students and rehearsing for Troilus and Cressida, and when we see the poster hanging from the National Theatre in Bucharest, I learn my first (and hitherto only) Rumanian word, “şi,” meaning “and.” After the performance, dressed as they are in togas, and in heavy stage makeup ready to party, the British contingent in Bucharest learn that Paris has just fallen to the Germans.
The foreigners are leaving Bucharest fast, and one of the more persistent among their number is Prince Yakimov, the embodiment of that class of people that get stranded after the collapse of Empire. A general worldliness of having seen better days, frayed at the edges, almost certainly with an alcohol problem (this will forever link him in my mind with Charles Stringham of A Dance to the Music of time and Geoffrey Firmin of Under the Volcano). It is, however, not quite certain which Empire once claimed Yakimov, rumored as he is to be of Russian and Irish extraction. Yakimov comes to represent “old Europe” and when he hears Paris is fallen looks wistfully and says “Such times we had in Paris,”as if he’s had one of Proust’s madeleines. You want an entire series based on his adventures as a young man. Yakimov, slow on the uptake when it comes to geopolitical awareness, asks all the questions we want to ask and becomes the vehicle for background information. While other Europeans are fleeing, he travels to the countryside to pay a visit to one of his old friends who now works for the Germans, pretending he has information he can sell him.
On his way back to Bucharest, a rich lady in a fur coat tells Yakimov “I go to Istanbul. In Bucharest they shoot you.” Yes, I once thought, here is my moment come, they will come to Istanbul, they will have to acknowledge that I live in the centre of the world. “Lush and Dubedat (two disreputable English teachers) have run away to East-anbul” we hear Pringle say, despairing. They’ve probably done a stint teaching at my high school, I fantasize. Even Yakimov leaves: “We had a letter from Turkey this morning. Yaki says he’s weighed down with loneliness and kebabs.” But Pringle will not let go of his castle. “We represent all that is left of western culture and democratic ideal,” he says—a remark my 11-year-old self would have taken as par for the course, but watching in 2018 tastes sour. Back then, I am only interested in seeing them come to Istanbul.
Instead they flee to Athens, and I am heartbroken. But then Harriet goes to the Acropolis and considers whether she can be unfaithful to Guy, who has repeatedly preferred other people’s company to hers through the first three episodes, and her melancholy communes with the Parthenon’s perfect columns. My 11-year-old self vowed to visit the Acropolis one day. And I do. In 2014, after I pay my respects at the Parthenon I look for the Zonar’s Café, and find it is under renovation. Another “site” that is etched in my memory—which I didn’t try to locate—from the Greece episodes is the villa of Gracey, the head of the British School. The Pringles visit this mysterious man in his villa to ask for a job for Guy. The building is perched on a promontory and seems to be populated by life-sized statues. So much of the furniture in my literary imagination has been laid there by Fortunes of War. This villa was the inalterable décor when I read The Magus many years later.
Guy does manage to get the job, but the Germans advance and so the Pringles leave. Surely to Istanbul this time. Or at least to Izmir, which is right across the water. The journey takes forever as Pringle reads John Donne on deck in the inviolable silence as everyone else is terrified about passing German U-boats. The fourth episode finishes. The fifth opens with the sound of the adhan, surely now we’re home, surely now I will see them walk the streets that I walk. But the minarets look wrong. The camera zooms out and we see camels. They have bypassed Istanbul and made straight for Cairo. I feel cheated. People are wearing fezzes, the street vendors are calling out “bordogal” but it gives me no joy.
Then, Rupert Graves appears, in uniform and with long vowels that seem to have several Rs in them. He is playing Simon Boulderstone, a young officer just posted to Cairo. Harriet explains the lie of the land to him when he protests that he is there for something akin to Kurtz’s redeeming idea:
Boulderstone: We’ve brought them justice, prosperity…
Harriet: Prosperity? Nothing’s changed for them for a thousand years.
Boulderstone: But we’re protecting them now
Harriet: We’re protecting the Suez Canal. The route to India. Clifford’s oil company.
All the discourse you need to know about the Middle East in a nutshell. The liberal position of understanding the political aims of Empire, but remaining blind to any local transformation that might have occurred between the time of the Pharaohs and the British protectorate. But I understand the impact of this much later. In 1987, I only admire the graceful way Harriet climbs the pyramids, making another promise to self to climb them just as she did. By the time I arrive in 2008, tourists are not allowed to climb them at all.
It wasn’t all geography, colonialism, and the erasure of the traces of the “receded Ottoman Empire,” as Manning puts it in the book, that I learned from Fortunes of War. It also taught me a lot about a certain kind of relationship, a certain kind of man. “When we first met, you made me feel I was the centre of the universe,” says Harriet as they are having a conversation about an affair Guy may or may not have had with a Rumanian woman. “And so you are,” replies Guy. “But you make everyone feel like that,” answers Harriet. This conversation has often come back to me in the intervening years, when I found myself in the company of a Guy. I think often, also, of the conversation between Harriet and one of Guy’s friends from Cambridge in a café in Alexandria, where Guy is teaching Finnegans Wake at the university, to the two remaining students. Finnegans Wake is a title that would’ve meant nothing to me at the time, but now I think, Alexandria is the perfect Levantine port to teach it, as Trieste was the perfect Levantine (okay, Balkan, if you insist) port that inspired it, with their Babel of languages.
Aidan: Are you waiting for Guy Pringle?
Harriet: Usually, yes.
Aidan: My name’s Aidan Pratt. I’m on leave from Damascus.
Harriet: Damascus? How do you know Guy?
Aidan: Last time I was here somebody told me a story. Two men were shipwrecked on a desert island. Neither knew the other but they both knew Guy Pringle
You know who he’s talking about. Yes, him. The one everyone’s besotted about. The one who organizes the parties and is great in a crowd. Also he whose magnanimity gets him or those around him into trouble. The two Palestinian Jews that Guy recruits to teach at the American University of Cairo turn out to be assassins. I wonder if I paid any attention to the identity of the assassins when I was watching in 1986, but now the subplot seems to be that they might have been related to the Irgun. This is how the Pringles discuss the event:
Guy: The whole thing’s ludicrous.
Dobson: This is the Levant after all.
Harriet: You used to say that about the Balkans.
Watching now, this conversation seems like the coda to the series, a sentiment that falls in line with my initial reaction to seeing these people that really belonged in a Merchant-Ivory production traipsing about in my lands. From Bucharest to Alexandria, I am or know every “native” they speak to. From the demurely made-up middle class women around the dinner table in a banker’s home in Bucharest (several aunties come to mind), to the wistful man in Damascus trying to explain to Harriet the meaning of hijab…When the latter happens, I am at the edge of my seat, thinking, “He’s botched it,” as I often do nowadays, not least when I am the one trying to explain. I was 11 when I watched the scene, and I would have years, a decade to think about it, to work out the perfect explanation, before I would be released upon the English speaking world:
Harriet: You can’t make men chaste by keeping women out of sight
Damascene Man: You are an unusual lady, you have a mind of your own
Harriet: Where I come from it’s not unusual
“But I have a mind of my own too,” my 11-year-old self shouts. “Just you give me time and I’ll come to England and talk to you about how it is not unusual where I come from, either.”
Everyone has their demons. Watching the series again I realize I have spent my entire life writing back to the Pringles.
1. Dry Spell
I’m going through a period where I’m not reading very many novels. I really hate this. To me, every period of reading stagnation is the beginning of the slippery slope, which will lead you to one day parrot the refrain your bookish, childhood self heard from all the adults in view: “I miss reading,” and “I used to read a lot, too.”
Telling a young bookworm that reading is something people might stop doing is like telling people who just fell in love that a day will come when they won’t want to have sex all the time. No one is trying to hear this.
Many of the books I have read are indexed by place and time. Usually there is nothing particularly meaningful about the occasion, and the memory is populated by mundane details—this book goes with a bus in that city; that one under the hostess stand at that restaurant; the other belongs in a purse I used to have, and wish I had still.
But there is a flash point where the book you are reading is exactly the book you should and want to be reading at that moment, and the combination renders the occasion of your reading so intensely pleasurable that you remember it for years as a halcyon day in your life.
In a dry spell, I find myself fantasizing about these greatest hits of my reading past, fetishizing afternoons on couches lost to time.
These are not the kind of memories with a facile cinematic chronology—it’s impossible to create a montage of a girl supine for eight hours with Of Human Bondage. And while you can think long about a particular book—its plot or its meaning—there is no narrative to an epic reading of a book as there is with other life moments (He said x, and then he kissed me; the phone rang, they rescued Timmy from the well.)
Reading memories are intensely boring to describe to someone else in any detail. Reading memories are cat memories—a sunbeam, a warm spot, a heaven-sent breeze, distant voices.
Often, there are snacks.
I was moved by Leah Carroll’s poignant essay about the foods in which she takes comfort. I am a creature of habit, and I form periods of intense attachment to foods, just as I do with books. For me, many comfort foods are profoundly connected to my reading memories; books, like food, provide rich and varied nourishment, often greater than the sum of their ingredients. Taken in conjunction, books and food are a potent, comprehensive, and very private source of happiness. Proust’s madeleine would feel more real to me had Proust, upon discovering the power of the cookie, obtained a huge box and eaten them while reading all seven Chronicles of Narnia.
On a summer Saturday, probably 2004, I mixed tuna fish in my mother’s style—with plain yogurt, a touch of mayonnaise, green onion, black pepper, and lemon—and spread it on melba toast crackers. I poured a coca-cola over ice. I took the plate to the couch, lay down, and read Lolita all the way through. And verily it was one of the most pleasant days of my life.
I remember a tuna fish sandwich and The Blind Assassin, sprawled on the same couch, on the same kind of summer afternoon. Tuna fish is writ large in my reading life, but only prepared in this precise way (with yogurt; the bread can be different, and sometimes I put mustard). When I need to manufacture happiness, I make tuna fish.
The fall I read 2666 coincided with my rediscovery of a very plain spaghetti I remembered eating every day one summer in my childhood—a spaghetti with butter, salt, and a mild cheese. Unsurprisingly, given its flavor profile and ingredients, I was crazy for this dish with a kind of fevered passion, which is just how I felt about 2666. The day I cranked through most of volume 2 was a day I did two things that are almost impossible: I read with a blinding hangover and I read while eating spaghetti. I think I made the spaghetti twice that day, so abandoned was I to hangover and booklust.
Like 2666, part of the appeal of the spaghetti was how delicious it was, and its impossibility as a permanent and frequent fixture in my snack rotation. I was wild for the book, and the spaghetti, but you cannot read 2666 every day, and butter spaghetti must be used infrequently, lest it lose its great effect, and you develop a pallor.
It was not my first spaghetti madness. One lonely high school summer spent in a new country, I plundered my parents’ pantry of commissary-bought cans and dry goods. I invented a version of canned clam sauce, heavy on white wine, and ate it every afternoon while reading the assembled works of A.S. Byatt. Possession tastes like canned clams and coca cola with a splash of wine; it sounds like the beetle that tapped faintly from behind the living room wall.
In 2005 I read The Sea, The Sea, and my encounter with Charles Arrowby’s homely yet intensely provocative food interests coincided with (or influenced, possibly) a period during which I ate cabbage and carrot salad every single day for several months. (Fear not, gentle readers, I ate other things too.)
An Arrowby meal, for the uninitiated:
. . . spaghetti with a little butter and dried basil . . . Then spring cabbage cooked slowly with dill. Boiled onions served with bran, herbs, soya oil, and tomatoes, with one egg beaten in. With these a slice or two of cold tinned corned beef.
In my beloved salad, the red or green cabbage is thinly sliced, the carrots grated. I add tiny slivers of garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and a lot of salt. At the end, I drag my bread across the bowl and it is stained orange with the remaining oil and the life blood of carrots. I know this as a Greek winter salad, but my beloved roommate of the period made cabbage and carrot in her home Tatarstan. Cabbage and carrot is home food across great distances.
I remember eating a bowl of this and a loaf of the airy bread procured from my corner shop, lying on the bed with Iris Murdoch’s best novel, and smoking cigarettes. This memory is especially riddled with nostalgia—now there are no more cigarettes, there is no more bread eaten in number 5 Happy Street (actual address) in a distant Istanbul suburb. I still make cabbage and carrot salads, but they are simulacra.
Some foods are not my own creation. Another summer I spent every one of my lunch breaks eating xoriatiki salata from the same cafe while reading the majority of Stephen King’s novels. Greek salad and The Stand are intimations of heaven on earth. During some weeks I was left to my own devices I contrived to eat the platonic ideal of chicken and rice at Philippou, the most wonderful restaurant in all of Greece, every day that I had the money to acquire it. That’s where I read Under the Volcano. I went back years later and took my beloved, but I cannot recapture the feeling of those hot days in a cool room, the whir of fans and the silverware clinking on the plates of the regulars, the ruination of Geoffrey Firmin.
Probably my nostalgia is less for the these books and these tuna fish crackers, but for lost places, lost summers, lost time (Oh hallo, Marcel—do pass the madeleines). Every passing year makes an afternoon spent on the couch less an inalienable right and more of a louche extravagance. Every year I see more clearly the first-world silliness of a spoilt youth eating dozens of baked chicken portions in a classy Athenian restaurant. I wouldn’t talk sense into her now, though. These memories are too precious.
All is not lost and melancholic. The dry spell will end, god willing. There are still books to read in snatched half-hours; there is passionate reading in our future. There is still tuna fish and cabbage salad.
Image credit: Flickr/galant.
James Ross published just one novel in his lifetime. This is a rare thing because of a paradox that lies at the heart of novel writing: it demands such sustained focus, such persistence, so much raw pig-headed stubbornness that anyone who does it once almost invariably does it again, and again, and again. Once is almost never enough. The agony is just too delicious. Yet after his debut novel, They Don’t Dance Much, appeared in 1940, James Ross published a dozen short stories but no more novels. When he died in 1990 at the age of 79, he could have been a poster boy for that rarest and most tortured breed of novelist: the one-hit wonder.
Truth to tell, They Don’t Dance Much was not a very big hit. When Ross met Flannery O’Connor at the Yaddo artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in the late 1940s, O’Connor wrote to her agent: “James Ross, a writer who is here, is looking for an agent. He wrote a very fine book called They Don’t Dance Much. It didn’t sell much.”
Yet Ross has always had a fiercely devoted, if small, band of acolytes. I count myself among them. So did Raymond Chandler, who called Ross’s novel “a sleazy, corrupt but completely believable story.” Another fan is Newsweek critic Malcolm Jones, who last year picked They Don’t Dance Much as one of his 10 favorite crime novels. In his New York Times review of a 1994 novel called Mucho Mojo by Joe R. Lansdale, the gifted novelist Daniel Woodrell listed some of Lansdale’s “country-noir” predecessors, including James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell and Jim Thompson. “James Ross is scarcely ever mentioned,” Woodrell wrote, “though his one novel, They Don’t Dance Much (1940), might be the finest of the lot. He is the forebear Mr. Lansdale most strongly brings to mind. They share a total trust in the straightforward power of a man’s voice speaking when he has a witch’s brew of a tale to tell. No tricks, no stylish ennui, no somnambulant remoteness or pointless savagery are required…”
True on every count. There is abundant savagery in Ross’s novel, including a graphic description of a man getting tortured, beaten to death, dumped into a vat off bootleg beer, then burned. But the savagery has a point – it is almost always a by-product of greed – which is a very different thing from saying it points toward some sort of moral, or even some species of authorial judgment. Ross was too cold-eyed, too much of a realist to care about such niceties. As he put it himself: “Some reviewer said the novel was ‘Southern Gothic,’ suggesting a piece of fiction dealing in fantastic occurrences in an overdrawn setting. My…aim was merely to show it the way it was and leave it to the reader to reach his own conclusions as to the point of it, if there was any, or draw his own moral if he needed one.”
The “straightforward power of a man’s voice” in this case belongs to the novel’s narrator, Jack McDonald, a down-on-his-luck North Carolina farmer who is about to lose his exhausted 45 acres for non-payment of back taxes. Jack jumps at the chance to go to work as cashier for a roughneck named Smut Milligan, who’s about to expand his filling station into the biggest, noisiest, nastiest roadhouse for miles around, a bona fide knife-and-gun club that attracts a barely literate, frequently drunk, occasionally violent and largely worthless clientele. With this crew – and a ringleader like Smut Milligan – it’s inevitable that there will be blood.
The straightforward power of Jack’s voice is established in the book’s opening sentences: “I remember the evening I was sitting in front of Rich Anderson’s filling station and Charles Fisher drove up and stopped at the high-test tank. The new Cadillac he was driving was so smooth I hadn’t heard him coming. He sat there a minute, but he didn’t blow the horn.”
Ross needs fewer than 50 words to tell us many valuable things: that his narrator is the shiftless type who hangs around filling stations; that Charles Fisher is so rich he can afford the very best, including a purring new Cadillac that drinks high-test gas; and that Fisher isn’t the sort of rich man who lords it over the hired help.
Ross continues: “Fisher’s wife was with him. She had looked at me when they first drove up, but when she saw who it was she turned her head and looked off toward the Methodist Church steeple. She sat there looking toward the steeple and her face cut off my view of her husband. But that was all right with me; I had seen him before. I had seen Lola too, but I looked at her anyway.”
In addition to being straightforward, this writing has the great virtue of compression, which means its seeming simplicity is both a mask for and the source of its deep complexity. Writing this way might look easy, but it’s not. Writers as diverse as Hemingway, Joan Didion and Elmore Leonard are proof, as are their legions of tin-eared imitators.
Another of the novel’s many pleasures is the way Ross uses money to do something all successful novelists must do – bring his story to life in a particular place at a particular time. In this he’s reminiscent of Balzac, who managed to mention money at least once on every page he ever wrote. To cite just a few examples from Cousin Bette: “It cost me two thousand francs a year, simply to cultivate her talents as a singer” … “At the age of fifty-two years, love costs at least thirty thousand francs a year” … “Tell me, are you worth the six hundred thousand francs that this hotel and its furnishing cost?”
Money is every bit as important, though not nearly as plentiful, in Ross’s fictional North Carolina mill town called Corinth, a stand-in for the hamlet of Norwood where he grew up. The time is the late 1930s, when the Depression is ending and the Second World War is beginning. In that place at that time, Ross tells us, a bottle of beer cost 10 cents, a steak sandwich cost 40 cents and a pint of “Breath of Spring” corn liquor cost a dollar. A cotton mill worker earned $40 a month while the more skilled hosiery mill worker earned that much in a week, though the work frequently drove him blind by the age of 30. All this is a shorthand way of establishing the thing that is not supposed to exist in America but always has and always will: a class system. Another tool Ross uses to expose it is his characters’ speech.
Here’s a bit of social analysis from one of the roadhouse regulars: “Oh, Yankees is got the money… They’s a few folks in Corinth got money too. Henry Fisher is got plenty of money. But folks like that go to the beach and to Californy, and to Charlotte, and up Nawth to spend it. They ain’t comin out here for no amusement.” And here’s Charles Fisher pontificating to a visitor from the North about the South’s troublesome white trash: “The main problem down here is the improvidence of the native stocks, coupled with an ingrained superstition and a fear of progress. They are, in the main, fearful of new things… I think they merely dislike the pain that is attendant to all learning.”
Jack, who lost his farm and can’t afford to pay for his mother’s burial, has a low opinion of the higher-ups: “They were the people that are supposed to be nice folks, but like a dram now and then. And when nobody is looking like to kiss somebody else’s wife and pinch her on the behind and let their hands drop on her thigh, always accidentally, of course.” That accidentally, of course establishes Ross’s kinship with all true storytellers since Homer, his understanding that all classes – that is, the whole human race – is essentially unimprovable, an eternal mix of meanness and nobility, violence and compassion, horror and humor.
Which brings us to Ross’s greatest gift of all, his sly wit. Here’s Jack describing the woods around the roadhouse: “It was still down there toward the river. You could hear the mosquitoes singing, ‘Cousin, Cousin,’ just before they bit you. When they got their beaks full of blood they’d fly off singing, ‘No kin, No kin,’ just like humans.”
And here’s Jack asking Smut about a gift he gave the sheriff:
“What was that you gave him in the paper sack?” I asked.
“A quart of my own private Scotch. Confound his time, he ought to appreciate that. I paid four bucks a quart for that stuff.”
“I didn’t know the sheriff drank,” I said.
“He don’t drink much. Just takes a little for medicine when he has a cold.”
“You think he’s got a cold now?” I asked.
“I understand he keeps a little cold all the time,” Smut said.
Even such wonderfully wry writing couldn’t keep the book from slipping into obscurity. Then in 1975, 35 years after its original publication, the novel was re-issued in hard-cover by Southern Illinois University Press as part of the Lost American Fiction series edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Ross was about to retire after 20 years as a political reporter and editorial writer at the Greensboro Daily News, which followed stints as a semi-pro baseball player, farmer and IRS clerk. A few years after his retirement, I took a newspaper job in Greensboro and happened to rent an apartment a few blocks from where Jim and his wife, Marnie Polk Ross, lived. I was still in my twenties, still more than a dozen years from publishing my own first novel, and so naturally I was in awe of a writer who’d hob-nobbed with Flannery O’Connor and written a novel that had just been anointed a classic. Beyond that, Jim Ross became a friend to me and many other young writers in town because he never offered false praise and yet he had a way of making us believe in ourselves. He showed us that a writer can come out of the red-clay gulches of rural North Carolina during the Depression – that is, a writer can come out of absolutely anywhere at any time – and make high art without resorting to tricks, stylish ennui or pointless savagery. It was the sort of encouragement and inspiration only the luckiest aspiring writers get. Coming from Jim Ross, it meant the world.
While visiting Greensboro recently, I pulled up to the house where Jim spent his last years. To my surprise, Marnie was out in the front yard in lemony sunshine, raking leaves. Though I was uninvited and unannounced and hadn’t seen her since Jim’s funeral 20 years ago, she invited me in, gave me a glass of ice water, and started telling me stories, which is something Southerners of a certain age still tend to do.
Right off, she stunned me. She told me a college professor named Anthony Hatcher had visited her a while back, expressing an interest in writing some sort of scholarly article about Jim. She’d given Hatcher all of Jim’s papers, including the 318-page manuscript of a novel called In the Red. I remembered Jim mentioning something about a second novel when I first met him, back in the 1970s. When I’d asked him if he planned to try to publish it, he’d said, “It’s no damn good.” Then his voice had trailed off. I assumed it was unfinished, or unpolished, and that he had never showed the novel to anyone. Marnie set me straight.
“Jim tried very hard to get it published,” she said. “He sent it to (the agent) Knox Burger, but nobody wanted to publish it. I think that rejection had a lot to do with Jim’s declining health. I think Jim was kind of a pessimist and he didn’t really expect it to sell. He hoped it would sell – writers are always hoping their work will sell. They want it more than anything, but it doesn’t always happen.”
Knox Burger, I learned later, was the fiction editor at Collier’s when the magazine published two of Jim’s short stories in 1949, “Zone of the Interior” and “How To Swap Horses.” (Jim also published short stories in the Partisan Review, Cosmopolitan, the Sewanee Review and Argosy.) Burger went on to become a book editor and then, beginning in 1970, a celebrated literary agent. If he couldn’t sell your novel, your novel was in serious trouble.
So Jim Ross, it turns out, was something even more tortured than a conventional one-hit wonder. He was an unwilling one-hit wonder, a writer who went back to the well and wrote a second novel and then gave up because nobody bought it and he convinced himself it was no damn good. There can’t possibly be anything delicious about that kind of agony.
Rosemary Yardley, a former newspaper colleague of mine and a good friend of the Ross’s, remembers visiting Jim in Health Haven Nursing Home, where he was frequently admitted in his later years due to debilitating osteoarthritis. Jim called the place “Hell’s Haven.”
“I asked him about that novel,” Rosemary told me, “and he said, ‘I tried to sell it but they don’t like the way I write anymore. I don’t write what they look for today.’ He was probably right. He wrote old-fashioned stories in the sense that they always had a good plot.”
Finally I reached Anthony Hatcher, who lives in Durham, N.C., and teaches journalism and media history at nearby Elon University, which Jim Ross attended for one year. “I re-read They Don’t Dance Much last year,” Hatcher said, “and when I learned that he left the college under mysterious circumstances, I became extremely interested. I decided I would dive into the life of Jim Ross. I tracked down Marnie, some of Jim’s former newspaper colleagues, his sister Jean Ross Justice (a short story writer and widow of the poet Donald Justice) and his sister Eleanor Ross Taylor (a poet and widow of the fiction writer Peter Taylor). I’m still collecting archival material. In addition to the In the Red manuscript, which is based on political figures in Raleigh, there’s a 113-page fragment of a novel called Sunshine In the Soul. My initial thinking is that I would write about Jim Ross the fiction writer – his published novel and short stories – and then tackle the unpublished work. I would love to do an in-depth treatment of Jim Ross and his place in the Greensboro literary scene, going back to the days of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate in the 1930s.” Hatcher plans to take an eight-month sabbatical next year to work on the book.
So Jim Ross was an unwilling one-hit wonder who might yet have another day in the sunshine. This unlikely twist of fate got me thinking about other writers who stopped publishing after they sold their first novels, for reasons that range from rejection to writer’s block to drink, drugs, depression, shyness, madness, a loss of interest or a loss of nerve, or the simple realization that they said all they had to say in their one and only book. The most famous are Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind) and Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man). Less well known was Anna Sewell, who was not a professional writer but scored a major hit with Black Beauty in 1877. A few months after the book was published she died of hepatitis. That is just plain wrong. (Ellison and Henry Roth, who published his second novel 60 years after his debut, Call It Sleep, have recently joined Vladimir Nabokov and Roberto Bolaño in publishing novels after they died, which can’t be an easy thing to do.)
And then there is the group I think of as Mislabeled One-Hit Wonders – writers who actually published more than one novel but will forever be identified with the one that made their names. J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye), Malcolm Lowry (Under the Volcano), Frederick Exley (A Fan’s Notes), Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road) and Jack Kerouac (On the Road) come immediately to mind. Those books dwarfed everything else their creators wrote, which is a both a tribute to those books and an unfair slap at their sometimes very fine but terminally overshadowed brethren.
And finally there’s the curious case of Dow Mossman, who published a novel called The Stones of Summer in 1972, then evaporated. Thirty years later, a fan named Mark Moskowitz made a documentary film called Stone Reader, about his love for the novel and his quest to find its mysterious author, who, it turned out, was hiding in plain sight in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the house he grew up in. Barnes & Noble CEO Stephen Riggio was so taken by the movie that he invested $200,000 in its distribution and paid Mossman $100,000 for the right to re-issue the novel in hard-cover. The reclusive Mossman suddenly found himself on one of the most improbable book tours in the history of American publishing.
Moskowitz’s motivation for making the documentary was simple: “I can’t believe a guy could write a book this good and just disappear and never do anything again.”
Well, believe it. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. It sort of happened to Jim Ross and Ralph Ellison. Many people wrongly think it happened to J.D. Salinger. It definitely happened to Harper Lee. And it almost never ends as it ended for Dow Mossman, whose book tour took him to Boston, where one day in the fall of 2003 he found himself puffing a cigar while gazing out at the Charles River and talking to a newspaper reporter. “I don’t think I’ve caught up with the reality of it yet,” Mossman said. “It’s pretty unreal.”
What happened to Mossman is way beyond unreal. It’s just about impossible.
Like its protagonists Yvonne and Geoffrey, Under the Volano and I were just reunited after a long separation. I read other books, it’s true; I cheated with this novel’s close friends and relatives. But I had my own problems, and Under the Volcano makes itself hard to love. It’s brilliant and tedious, winsome and unbearable, moving and maddening and sad.
I feel close to Under the Volcano because I wrote my undergraduate thesis about it. Together we drank the hair of the dog while reflecting on life’s failures; together we threw away our minds. Specifically, the thesis was about Under the Volcano and The Divine Comedy. While Dante urged me to strive up, up, up toward heaven’s crooning saints and brightly-lit pinwheels, Malcolm Lowry lit my cigarette and told me it’s always nighttime inside the bar. It was a confusing period in my life.
When I left school, thesis haphazardly completed, I was sick of Lowry and his monumental fuck-ups and his wasted life and his ragged, mostly unreadable oeuvre. I never wanted to think about him again.
I came back because I wanted to remember what it was that had so arrested me about Under the Volcano six years ago. My recollection of the novel was blurry, obscured by memories of the college years. So I reread it and understood that this is a book you must come back to again and again.
That’s true in the literal sense; when you read the last page you are compelled to start from the beginning; the novel is a wheel. But go back to it months and years later. The real power of this novel is in its inevitability. There is something especially sad and bitter about the jaded heartbreak of the foregone conclusion.
Moreso than most novels, Under the Volcano is veritably handcuffed to its author. Malcolm Lowry’s general failure at life management and his frequent misfortunes are nearly impossible to set aside while thinking about this novel. The man’s alcoholism was legendary. I remember reading that he underwent a ghastly detox technique wherein he sat in a small room lit with only a red lightbulb while doctors injected him with a powerful sick-making compound for days. After a week, he escaped and went on a two-day bender, during which he drank everything.
Apart from the staggering drinking problem, Lowry’s possessions and manuscripts tended to get lost or catch on fire. Then, when he finally managed to squeeze out a real masterpiece, it got a withering “Briefly Noted” in The New Yorker: “…for all his earnestness he has succeeded only in writing a rather good imitation of an important novel.”
Under the Volcano was the only output of Lowry’s where he was able to step outside of himself for the sustained period of time necessary for creation. The novel could only be about a person ruined by alcohol, because alcohol was the major disaster of Lowry’s own life. Under the Volcano has the curious effect of quite vividly and painfully transmitting the alcoholic’s grinding, ever-present need to drink.
Perhaps this says more about my own variety of temperament, but I found myself putting down the book to Google whether there was a mezcaleria in my neighborhood (pero no). Even while reading in horror about the Consul (Geoffrey) unable to put socks on his alcohol-sodden, neuritic feet, I was gripped by his craving for fiery booze and five hundred cigarettes.
In his Consul, Lowry also managed to write the frenetic, mostly incoherent scholar of arcane texts that Lowry himself patently was. The Consul is obsessed with Kabbala, among other things; his fevered interest, his drinking, and his references’ very opacity render him unable to finish, or start, the definitive text he alleges to have been working on for years. Lowry, with his fetish for certain large and complex texts and systems of belief (e.g., Dante, Buddhism), was similarly unable to extricate himself from his head and his sources to write consistently good work.
Lowry’s self-awareness, much in evidence as he labored over this novel, is the more heart-rending given his own untimely and ignoble end, choking on his vomit from overdose (which was, according to various people, an accident, a pseudo-suicide, or a maybe-murder).
The New Yorker’s brief note notwithstanding, Under the Volcano’s power is not strictly in the unavoidable comparisons between its protagonist and its author. Quite apart from its autobiographical significance, it is beautifully constructed and written, although the prose can be frustrating, and the whole experience is disorienting (like being drunk, then really drunk, then sober, then drunker than before). Its difficulty is also its success, I feel more than ever after this recent reading.
I love the opening pages of the novel, the retrospective Laurelle and the farcical Dr. Vigil, the inversion of Dante’s sober and silver-tonged Virgil: “I sended a boy down to see if he would come for a few minutes and knock my door, I would appreciate it to him, if not, please write me a note, if drinking have not killed him already.” I love how sensory the novel is, the things it allows you to see and smell and feel, even the aching limbs and the clamoring hangover that follow an all-night bender.
Among other things, it’s a novel of place, with Quauhnahuac (Cuernavaca) a character unto itself. As with Dante, geography is important to Lowry, and as with Dante, the geography is sometimes confusing; it seems to defy the laws of physics. The place teems with ravines and hills and roads that, no matter where one goes, seem to lead (titularly) to the volcano.
Sweeping statements are dangerous, but I’m feeling bold this evening; I’m drinking paisano-flavored Carlo Rossi. So here goes: In my little universe, Under the Volcano and Lolita are the alpha and the omega of twentieth century literature in English. I don’t mean necessarily that we need employ the bogus notion of “best,” simply that between them they exemplify the artistic possibilities of literature. Between them, they define things that literature sets out to do and does.
At the level where theme and style converge, Under the Volcano is the great hangover of the Western Hemisphere of the forties, worn out from its newly concluded horrors. Lolita is its bright, shiny, hopelessly corrupt new dawn. The novels’ respective styles, influences, and preoccupations between them cover a lot of ground. Even their authors neatly occupy two important provinces of the literary lion: Nabokov the eerily prolific, the presentable, the consummate virtuoso; Lowry the wreck, the shit-show, the consummate artistic temperament.
The Formalist quibbler will argue that Lowry should remain outside his text, that it must stand on its own merits. I think the novel has plenty of formal merits, but I still reject this position. How can I not think about Malcolm Lowry? He steps off the page of this novel and says, “Please understand me.” Like Dr. Vigil says of the Consul, “Sickness is not only in body, but in that part used to be call: soul. Poor your friend, he spend his money on earth in such continuous tragedies.” That’s real prescience; that’s heartbreaking.
March 12, 2010
Five months from today, my first novel, You Lost Me there, is being published. Max from The Millions emailed me today wondering if I’d write something come publication time. I stared at the kitchen table. I drank a delicious Diet Coke. (Superfluous—all Diet Cokes are delicious.) How about, I suggested, a pre-publication diary?
I’ve always been curious about what it’s like for writers in that period before a first book appears. The back-room deals, the marketing plans. Perhaps, I suggest to Max, the subhed could read, “The Ecstasy and Agony of My First Novel Being Published.” Ecstasy because getting a novel published is an extraordinary thing! It’s a meteor landing in the backyard. It burns down the swing-set. It completely freaks me out. And agony because, obviously, such a thing would be terrifying. JEREMY WHO THE FUCK BURNED DOWN THE SWING SET.
You Lost Me There took me four years to write. Before it, I wrote two other novels, one that was junk and another that received many polite rejection notices from big publishers. What happens if this book is judged to be corrosive to the Earth? What if little girls cry when they read it?
This summer, a new David Mitchell novel and a new Gary Shteyngart novel will arrive on shelves, both of which I will rush out to purchase. A new Andrea Levy, new Tom McCarthy (Remainder—!!!), new Jennifer Egan. Six billion terrific “debut” novels will appear, I’m sure, in a year when many terrific novels have already been published. And then there’s Franzen. Franzen. For years, publishing executives have stage-whispered over lunch, “When will Franzen return to rezap our cojones?”
I am ridiculously lucky and deliriously happy to be so seriously fucked.
March 13, 2010
I’ve never kept a diary before. My wife and I live in the woods on the rural fringe of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We moved here after stints in New York and Paris because we wanted to be around nature again. We have blueberry bushes, a gigantic fig tree, and thousands of ticks. Behind our house is an acre of forest. On its back side, there’s a guy with a lumber business who wields a much bigger, louder gun than I do. Mine is my wife’s dead grandfather’s BB gun, which we use to frighten away deer, whereas the neighbor’s gun is a shoulder-mounted cannon that he fires whenever he likes. Eleven o’clock tonight, I’m reading on our porch and the neighbor blasts five shots in a row. KAPLOW5. Does he wear night-vision goggles? In my fantasy he says to himself while reloading, in a Rue McClanahan voice, You sweet little motherfucker.
March 15, 2010
Nice day. Brisk. This afternoon, I submitted the final changes to the novel’s manuscript. My editor’s assistant bears with me. After this, I’m warned, I’ll be charged for every changed word, something like $20/sentence. I need to send brownies to my editor’s assistant.
March 16, 2010
I’ve been working on two other books for two years. One’s a novel about Tijuana. It will be completed in 2044, by which time David Mitchell will have already written it and written it better. Also working on a nonfiction book about Paris, or at least a proposal for one. I can’t seem to get it right, the proposal. It propels me away from my desk. Today I called a local author who’s become a friend. “Book proposals are hell,” she said. “They fuck you.” “Fuck you up?” I said. “No,” she said, “they fuck you.” She didn’t want to talk about it after that.
March 18, 2010
Worked late last night and went to bed happy. No crickets, no frogs, dead silence. Then this morning I erased the file I’d been working on. Who needs book proposals when I’m so competent at self-fucking? I should begin sleeping with a caffeine drip.
March 19, 2010
Sent brownies to my editor’s assistant.
March 20, 2010
Played tennis with another local author, Nic Brown. Per capita, I believe the Raleigh-Durham area to possess more writers than Brooklyn. Nic’s second book, a wonderful novel, Doubles, comes out in July. At one point in his book, there’s a doubles tennis team named Brown and Baldwin who aren’t very good. Today, Nic beat me 6-0. During a break I socked him in the head with a ball. I felt bad about that until bedtime.
March 21, 2010
If I’m not writing, reading, exercising, or talking on the phone, I worry about money. Ergo, I really, really love writing, reading, exercising, and talking on the phone.
March 22, 2010
7:43 a.m., the neighbor with the shotgun was out pounding squirrels. I saw him through the trees. Black cargo pants, tall desert boots, no shirt, American eagle/flag bandanna skullcap, and a pair of mirrored yellow Oakley sunglasses. Like he’s defending America while playing right field. Twice at night I’ve see him across the road in the woods, feeding trees into a big red splitter under construction lights.
Inchworm snuck into the picture
March 23, 2010
My brother-in-law and his wife had a baby. Wonderful day.
March 24, 2010
Awful day. Lost six hours to a panic meltdown. Anxiety is a future that hasn’t happened yet, but makes no other future seem possible. I made coffee, did some push-ups, and went for a walk. No problem can’t be solved by caffeine, push-ups, and a long walk in the woods.
March 25, 2010
Drizzling rain and severely windy. Did a lot of email, including asking an artist to help me make a video trailer for my book, Aya Padrón, a wonderful photographer based in Maine. Perhaps her pictures, I suggested, will get people excited about reading my novel, once rendered into YouTube format? Though, really, who the fuck knows. Does anyone know how to flog books online? Social-media flavor crystals don’t seem to be the answer.
March 26, 2010
No expression on America’s Defender today. Maybe he’s sad. He’s standing there holding some type of shotgun, staring at me. He pumps the gun, turns around, and goes back into his house.
March 29, 2010
Lovely spring weather. Spent an hour writing thank-you notes to various people at Riverhead, my publisher. I’ve heard nightmare accounts from other writers about their publishers. Let it be said, Riverhead is a dream, every employee.
March 31, 2010
On my birthday I have a tradition of taking the day off to bum around and get drunk and read stuff. I keep it classy. This year, my friend Melissa asked me to keep tally of what I consumed in chronological order. It went:
– 4 coffees
– 2 paper newspapers (News and Observer, Wall Street Journal)
– 1 Diet Coke
– 2 breakfast tacos
– 3 slices of vanilla cake with vanilla frosting
– 1 glass of milk
– 1 turkey, avocado, bacon sandwich
– 1 espresso
– 1 novel (The Wings of the Sphinx, Andrea Camilleri)
– 2 shots of tequila, 2 beers, 2 glasses white wine
– 1 cheese plate
– 1 slice of vanilla cake with vanilla frosting
– 1 glass of milk
– 1 magazine (The Atlantic Monthly)
– 1 coffee
– 1 glass of champagne, 2 glasses red wine, 2 glasses white wine
– 4 rounds of tapas
– 1 shot of tequila, 1 beer
– 1 college basketball game
– 1 slice of vanilla cake with vanilla frosting
– 1 glass of milk
– Half of Inspector Morse episode #31
April 2, 2010
Panic about the novel is set to low simmer. The next novel and the non-fiction book proposal aren’t flying, they’re flunking. Anxiety is causing my fingernails to reverse course and grow inward. What if You Lost Me There is perceived to be a bomb, would it be so bad? Playing around today, I figured out that Michiko Kakutani is an anagram for “Atomic Haiku Kink.” Michiko alone becomes, “Hi I Mock.”
April 4, 2010
Sunny day. Spotted two snakes, several lizards, and a pie-sized snapping turtle under our fig tree. Went to mow the yard, but the mower crapped out, so I called my wife’s uncle, a race-car driver with an elaborately equipped garage, and we threw the mower in his truck, grabbed some tools, cut a new spring, and refit the mower cap. Very satisfying afternoon.
April 7, 2010
Dread, the proper noun, is a pussy. Dread can’t stand Real Shit. When Real Shit turns up at the party, Dread resumes playing wall-flower, all envy. In a way, I’m thankful for today’s Real Shit, of a private nature that I’m not comfortable revealing here, but anyway, it’s a reminder. A novel’s only a novel. I’m extremely grateful for what I’ve got here in this world. My wife, my family, my health. And I am also thankful for Diet Coke and András Schiff.
April 8, 2010
Got off the phone. It happened again. In conversation and correspondence with other writers, two books routinely come up from the last couple years, as in, Dude, have you read this yet? David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. To the list, I would add Chimamanda Adiche’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Edward P. Jones’s The Known World.
I find it weird to meet writers who aren’t also big readers. Met one the other day at a bar and I looked at him queerly. He said he couldn’t find the time. This reminded me that readers are probably my people first, before writers. Writers are more likely to be dicks. Look at all the thug authors, unsmiling and posing so hard on their book jackets. I spent way too many afternoons in seventh grade reading Piers Anthony and Dragonlance books (and every one of my sister’s Babysitter Clubs) to pretend I’m a thug.
I just remembered I’m neither smiling nor appearing particularly thuggish in my own author photo. What’s really happening in that photo is I’m trying not to laugh, which is what happens when you’re trying to obey instructions not to smile or frown but to smile with your eyes and seem appealing. Not easy!
April 11, 2010
Dark outside. Woke up at four a.m. during a panic attack. Rocked myself back to sleep with visions of Andy Murray’s service returns.
April 13, 2010
Today I spoke to Daniel Wallace’s class of fiction-writing students. Daniel Wallace is the local king of novelists and a very nice guy. One of his students, after hearing about my work schedule, asked when I sleep. I told them something eloquent like, “Sleep is dumb.” Which is me paraphrasing Diddy, who says things like, “Don’t sleep, there’s too much to do,” and “Let’s go!” However, let’s call bullshit, bullshit. These poor kids only had a Pepsi machine in the lobby of the building, no Coke. Who could blame them for napping?
April 16, 2010
Ahoy! You Lost Me There was chosen by Entertainment Weekly for their summer list. I yelped when I received the news. My publicist and editor were as surprised as I was, especially by the caption, “a much-hyped debut novel,” since this is the first piece of “hype” we’ve seen. My book won’t appear for another four months. Have I already jumped the shark? I wet myself. Nearly.
April 19, 2010
First gunshot of the day, 8:42 a.m. Lesson relearned by the end of the day: nonfiction book proposals are hell. Very long walk followed by tequila.
April 29, 2010
Today we received the following email, from a newsgroup for people in our area:
A friend moved to a cabin across the road. On Monday afternoon she and her father were in her yard when they heard some close-range gunfire, said it sounded like a semi-automatic. Bullets were hitting the trees and even the house. She and her father lay flat until the shooting stopped, then called the sheriff’s department. If you have any information, could you please call the County Sheriff’s Office?
May 3, 2010
Finished Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano today walking around a New Urbanist community while Rachel went to the gym. Hard to imagine Lowry, with his extremely powerful imagination, imagining someone finishing his book in these circumstances.
May 4, 2010
9:43 a.m., first shot of the day. Ran into the squirrel hunter on the road yesterday. He waved. Warning sign of impending assassination? Vultures circled the house this afternoon, at least thirty of them.
May 12, 2010
Vultures are circling the house again, which means something died in the woods. After four hours, I’m nowhere with writing. Maybe ten satisfying lines. I wrote on my left wrist, WWDJD? (What Would Denis Johnson Do?)
Caught myself in the afternoon chasing a squirrel down from the side of the house while yelling Old Dirty Bastard lyrics at him, “Shame on you, if you step to!” First gunshot today, 10:12 a.m.
May 15, 2010
Finished the non-fiction book proposal and shipped it. Good riddance and good luck, dear proposal. Had drinks tonight with another writer, a friend of a friend swinging through town. I asked him what he writes. Among other things, he said, he’s the author behind a much beloved children’s series (that shall remain nameless). I.e., he’s the most current ghostwriter handling the work. I told him how I used to love the series when I was a kid. “Oh it’s different now. You’d hate it. The main characters are hackers,” he said. “They bust terrorists.”
May 16, 2010
Half the day I spend in my imagination, half I spend in car repair.
May 17, 2010
First advance review of You Lost Me There appeared today, a paragraph in Publishers Weekly. They’re giving it a pass. The anonymous critic found my book, among other things, to be “a highbrow melodrama.”
Afterward, my head’s hitting the kitchen table every ten minutes, spilling brain fluid. I’ll be thinking something else, then wham, my head hits the table. Melodrama? What’s so wrong with melodrama anyway? I told my editor never to send me another review, good or bad. Full of self-pity, I wondered, what do reviews offer anyway other than fluff jobs or despair? I moped until lunch, then I really started feeling bad for myself. In one month’s time my book had gone from “much-hyped” to passé. Maybe there’d still be time for a comeback?
The hardest part about jumping the shark is getting humped by its mouth.
May 21, 2010
Aya Padrón, the Maine photographer, loved the book and has decided to go shoot some pictures on Mount Desert Island, where the novel’s set. Wonderful news. Then I found out that You Lost Me There was recommended by TIME magazine for summer reading. Well, we flipped out.
May 24, 2010
Three days in New York with my sister. My sister lives in Brooklyn and we spent the weekend eating and drinking. Deviled eggs, I discovered, are in vogue in Manhattan right now, and now there’s a hatchery in my lower intestine. Diary note from the return flight, “New York is an office-park with a very good food court.” First gunshots this morning at 8:28 a.m. Good to be home.
May 25, 2010
Two events occurred simultaneously. 1) I found an egg on the counter; 2) a squirrel appeared on the window, clawing at the screen. I went outside and threw the egg at the squirrel. I hit a tree.
June 7, 2010
Woke up with dread around my neck like a chinstrap. Terrible hangover gave me a pork brain. Everything is horrible, only Publishers Weekly knows the future. I made coffee and it tasted like balsa wood. Worked from 6-10:30 am, then went back to bed to take a nap, but I couldn’t sleep for a panic attack about bad reviews to come, i.e., the end of the universe. (God, I’m pathetic.) Called my wonderful agent, PJ Mark, and if you account for our conversation based on what was actually said, rather than what was meant, I called PJ in order to apologize for calling him.
Went for a walk and listened to a radio show about tumors. Tumors are endlessly fascinating. Everything is interesting, inside I’m blank and unknowing.
June 9, 2010
Threw a can of generic diet cola at a squirrel because I hate both the fuckers, squirrels and generic diet sodas.
June 14, 2010
A week since I opened this diary. Well, diary, I spent the past week floating on air. Really floating. Received an offer on that nonfiction book and I’m still floating. Wolves briefly held at bay for a few more months. Writing is my peppermint-flavored heroin.
June 21, 2010
Yesterday something died in the woods. We could tell by the smell. This morning, Rachel barely made it to the car without barfing. It’s the smell of rotting flesh, of ninety-six-degree heat producing cheeseburger. I spent half an hour this morning beating the undergrowth for Death. Quite a sight, I had a black and white winter scarf wrapped around my head for a makeshift mask. Didn’t find Death.
June 22, 2010
Smell’s gone. Goodbye, Death. Thank you, vultures.
June 28, 2010
Had an article published on Slate about how frequently the phrases “a dog barked in the distance” and “somewhere, a dog barked” appear in novels, something I started noticing in college. Today, @dankois wrote on Twitter that he loved the new David Mitchell novel except for two instances where “a dog barked in the distance.” He added the hashtag, #thanksalotrosecransbaldwin. I felt the need to apologize.
July 7, 2010
There are endless sneaky ways to feel no good. Especially in the early hours, when Despair hides surface-to-air missiles in the couch and aims them at my amygdalae. This morning, I read a letter Nicholson Baker wrote to John Updike twenty-five years ago and I just felt awful. It’s one hell of a letter. Very Bakeresque. Me, I admire authors who keep digging after the same thing book after book. Baker, Ishiguro, Greene, Murakami. I mean, none of them’s a Philip Roth, a Coetzee, but who is? I go out into the woods and dig a hole with the toe of my boot to bury some coffee grounds and egg shells. No gun blasts.
July 12, 2010
Shotgun man just rode by my kitchen window on his motorcycle, stars and bars flying off the back. He was wearing tiny running shorts, tennis shoes with socks pulled up to his knees, and that’s it. Moustache blowing in the wind.
July 14, 2010
This afternoon, there was a thump on the front porch. The FedEx guy was walking back to his truck while I eyed the package. I knew what it was. Can I be a thug about this and still say I cried when I opened it and saw my book for the first time? Do thugs never cry? Who said thugs can’t be happy, can’t be true to themselves and their Lucy Lius?
July 20, 2010
Great advance review came in from the American Library Association. Thank you, Booklist! Libraries and librarians the world over, I honor you. Otherwise, my anxiety is causing acid reflux. I’ve started buying big bottles of chocolate milk. It is delicious, so sweet and so cold, and so fatty.
July 23, 2010
Book trailer went live today on YouTube. I love the novelty of book trailers. Why not? Why shouldn’t novels be sold every which-way? Look at the Shteyngart trailer, look at Sloane Crosley’s videos. We need more of this, not less.
Three years ago, I worked in advertising for 18 months and participated in a few big-scale shoots. One involved me interviewing Sir Sean Connery at his private Bahamas retreat. Highly ulcerous. Beforehand, the island faxed us a dress code requiring that men wear slacks and keep their shirts tucked in at all times. The filming was done in the afternoon after the photo shoot, and I can testify that the dock in the following picture was constructed that morning. I can also say that Sir Sean Connery was extremely nice. I’d say he was more nervous than me, but then he’d also been posing on a beach for three hours in ninety-degree weather in a wool sweater and a tuxedo.
July 26, 2010
Only way to get up in the morning and work steadily is to imagine there aren’t six million writers doing the same exact thing at the same moment with more imagination. That is one reason why I no longer live in New York.
July 29, 2010
Shit is really swinging. Reviews, interviews, news of reviews slated, online thingies solicited, and all are wonderful! I say yes to everything! And when I run my tongue over the gift horse in my mouth, I swear it’s chocolate and I pray it’s not squirrel inside. As you read these words I am very likely somewhere south of you, breathing into a paper bag. I am the luckiest bastard in the world.
August 3, 2010
We invited a farmer to visit and have his way with our fig tree. He brought a stepladder about sixteen feet too short; our fig tree is as tall as the house. He climbs up the tree and picks eight baskets full. The plan, he tells me, is to sell everything at a nearby farmer’s market, and in return he’s offering me trade in homemade sausage and cheese. Ne Fuck Pas Avec Les Benefits de La Semi-Rural Life. Evening lesson: Chocolate milk and tequila do not mix.
August 5, 2010
Self-Googling is never not shameful. Lots of push-ups today, some not very good work, a not very good nap, and I read a very good novel by Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver. Can NYRB Classics publish no wrong?
August 8, 2010
No gun shots in a week. Non-book stuff today: caught a pro-am tournament in Durham and watched NBA players battle in a tiny gym while listening to Gucci Mane. Man—or, as pronounced down here, mane—I wish I were athlete enough to get away with wearing shower sandals with dark socks pulled up to my knees.
August 10, 2010
So, this is what they call sleep deprived. Interviews have gone strangely, some wonderfully, some odd. One reporter called and we immediately went to tape for a radio broadcast while my mouth was full of a tomato sandwich. Most common question I’ve heard when people learn I’ve got a book coming out, “Are you touring?” The answer is, not really. I.e., I’m doing three readings in North Carolina and one in New York in September. But I wonder about the impulse behind the question. When did “author tour” become so popular a notion? What does happen when authors tour? I have no idea. Backyard amateur wrestling? Masked group sex? Eyes Wide Shut recreated nationwide in English department conference rooms? Diary, if I ever author-tour, it will be all of that, and commemorative T-shirts will be given out for free.
August 11, 2010
Last day of the diary. Diary, it’s been fun. To anyone reading, I hope you were entertained, I hope you laughed and cried, and I hope that was enough. Tomorrow my book will be published and shelved in stores, and we can socially-communicate regarding its inability to out-swim the hype shark. In the evening, I will visit one of my local bookstores, Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill (one of the events I’m doing), and they will serve (red) wine, (white) wine, and pabst (blue) ribbon. Perhaps I should invite my neighbor, America’s Defender.
I went running this afternoon to burn off some nerves. I saw him, my shotgun-toting neighbor, drinking beer outside his buddy’s trailer. He waved. I waved. I called out, “How you doing?” He yelled back, “Good man, good.”
Well, that’s exactly how I’m doing, times a thousand.
This was my year of reading alcoholically. I didn’t plan it that way. But in book after book, the disease flourished and triumphed, not a recovery in sight.
In Gerard Woodward’s remarkable trilogy (August, I’ll go to Bed at Noon and A Curious Earth) alcoholism (and some maternal glue sniffing) is not the unacknowledged elephant in the Jones family’s living room, it’s the unacknowledged elephant rampaging throughout their house and generations, not to mention the homes of near relations, and all the nearby pubs. Woodward’s depiction of a middleclass family riddled by unmitigated addiction is horrifying and hilarious, unsentimental and virtually untouched by medical or recovery jargon.
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy surely has one of the most astonishing first chapters in literature: Michael Henchard with his young wife and daughter come to a fair in a small town and decide to have a kind of milk drink. Michael pays extra to have his spiked, and proceeds in short order to get drunk and belligerent and then to sell his wife and child to the highest bidder! Sold! The next morning, the remorseful Henchard takes an oath not to drink for twenty-one years, but even abstinent he is the epitome of the dry drunk white-knuckling his way through life: he’s paranoid, self-important, has a terrible need to control; inwardly fragile, outwardly he’s a tyrant and a vengeful bully.
Henchard, though tragic, is a mild case compared to Frederick Exley, whose A Fan’s Notes is perhaps the first novelistic addiction memoir and remains a masterpiece of the genre. Exley’s book is a gorgeously written drunken quagmire; booze—and the New York Giants—are his only allegiances; his sense of entitlement, grandiosity and chronic lying are breathtaking. Incapable of keeping a job, he mooches off family and friends, abandons a wife, lives on his mother’s sofa, and rotates in and out of mental institutions. His courses of electric shock and insulin therapies, described in excruciating detail, don’t even begin to mitigate his alcoholism or wildly disordered personality. This book gave Exley some measure of what he thought all along was rightfully his: literary stature.
I chased Exley with Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend, a slim and almost perfect novel whose alcoholic narrator, Don Birnam, goes on a weekend bender of such epic proportions and degradations, this reader was exhausted a quarter way through. It’s a laborious full time job to drink the way Birnam does. He must come up with money—the maid’s pay is easy pickings, it’s harder to cadge cash from the uptight neighbor, and pawning his brother’s heirlooms proves impossible (the pawnshops are closed for Yom Kippur). Birnam also jungle swings between grandiosity and despair, lies continuously, blacks out, passes out, falls down a flight stairs, spends a few hours in the alcoholism ward, breaks everyone’s heart. Yet, come Monday morning, he’s eager to start the whole cycle again.
It’s excessive, I admit, but I capped off this literary binge with Under the Volcano in all its lush, hellbent, whirlybending glory. Lowry—like Exley and Jackson—knew whereof he wrote. But this chronicle of the last days of Geoffrey Firman, a former British consul in Quauhnahac Mexico, is more interior, with a strangely hallucinogenic verisimilitude—the reader at times resides so deeply in the Consul’s consciousness, she feels drunk.
Enough! In all these books, alcoholism is the nightmare from which nobody wakes up. It wears a reader down. And incites some year-end gratitude for—knock wood—the tenuous, fleeting gift of a clear mind.
For no reason at all, I always thought this book was about horses and cavalry officers. (This is a good example of why, when you ask me a question and I answer, you should be careful to ascertain whether I know the answer, or if it’s just a feeling I have. Especially when I am giving you directions.) So, this novel, which I never wanted to read because I thought it was about horses, piqued my interest when I saw it mentioned in conjunction with Revolutionary Road (which I’ve yet to read) and forgotten novels about men feeling sad even though they have a lot of nice items in their homes. Because, rather than horses, that’s what Appointment in Samarra is about. It is about the nameless malaise of the moneyed man of the modern era – the madness which no Cadillac can assuage. And it’s about alcoholism. Two of your popular literary themes, really.
So I read it, and it’s great. It’s like a lewd version of The Beautiful and Damned, but set in Pennsylvania, where people are slightly less fancy. The novel centers around Julian English, a cash-poor upper-cruster, who runs a Cadillac dealership. (Fitzgerald upper-crusters are too posh to even have jobs, let alone jobs in the automotive industry.) Julian drinks to excess with great frequency, and one day he throws a drink in a man’s face at the club, because the man is rich and fat and Irish Catholic and just de trop, somehow. And even though everyone in Gibbsville, PA is always doing grotesque drunken things at the club, this is for some reason the limit, and society begins to close ranks against Julian. After that, things go to complete shit very quickly. Julian, through desperation or madness or sheer orneriness, continues to behave badly, digging himself deeper with his peers and his wife, all the while drinking enough to kill an ox. At the end of the novel, his demise (figurative or literal, take your pick) is so inevitable it’s not even a spoiler. The title, taken from the epigraph, taken from Maugham, tells all.
Two things struck me about this book. One, it’s very spicy. I would imagine that it made an absolute scene upon its publication. The story talks a lot about all the fooling around that Julian and his wife Caroline did before they got married, and the romps they have after. It also talks about drunken foursomes, college girls “going the limit,” Parisian sex shows, men exposing themselves to helpless females, and “experienced” lady reporters. It’s the antidote to talking about the good old days when people cherished modesty.
Secondly, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to make this comparison, in addition to having obvious similarities with Fitzgerald (the man and the work), Appointment in Samarra is like a depression-era, mid-atlantic precursor to Under the Volcano. Not in its scope; Appointment in Samarra is a crude, meaningless sketch compared to the insanely complex (although perhaps equally meaningless) cosmologies that Malcolm Lowry wove together around Geoffrey Firmin. But the core of each novel is similar – the last day (or three) in the life of a man who is doomed. Each man (educated, posh), should be able to take himself in hand and pull himself together and stop drinking and stop perpetrating pointless cruelties on their respective wives, but they can’t, and they don’t, and you know they won’t from the first. They share the same fatal trajectory. But while Appointment in Samarra is easier and more fun to read, I thought Under the Volcano was sadder and better (so did the Modern Library, it seems); Firmin feels like a more real character, maybe because he was more of Lowry than English was of O’Hara. Or maybe because Lowry, a doomed, disastrous virtuoso, pulled himself together for one monumental achievement, while O’Hara, who sounds like a more garden-variety pain in the ass, managed to spread his talent out over a longer career. That’s just a feeling I have, though.