Fiona Helmsley’s got a new story up over at Human Parts, a great web site of storytelling-type writing.
Make sure to check out Fiona’s new book, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers.
I grew up across the street from an old cemetery. Sometimes, when he was feeling motivated, we’d go there, and walk. Round and round we’d go, making loops past the rows of neglected, moss-covered gravestones. Near the north side of the grounds, bordering the woods, a small scattering of crumbled stones faced west. Suicides, he told me. Back when the cemetery was active, they weren’t allowed to be buried on consecrated ground.
We’d grab walking sticks. I think of them now as staffs. We wouldn’t talk much as we walked, but we weren’t solemn or sad. When I think of his body, I think of sailors, probably because he bought most of his clothes at the Army Navy store. He’d wear t-shirts commemorating marathons he hadn’t run in, and shorts like Carhartt’s, with deep pockets and hooks. His legs were tight and muscular, like mine. I have my father’s legs, only sexy.
Some days, the little boy would come, and then the whole dynamic would change. The things my father and I did free of undercurrent became competitive. “Teachable moments” –just not for me. Even something like picking out a walking stick. For a young girl, any stick would do, but for a young boy, it had to be near-mythical, like everything else.
They’d go to the woods, near the suicides, and look for impressive ones. A lot of dads carry pocket knives, but in the pocket of his shorts, my father carried a truncheon. It protruded like an angry table leg. He’d hit at the overgrowth, and when he found a stick fit for a prince, the little boy would help to break it loose.
Because my stick wasn’t important, I’d wander ahead. One day, while they were off being men, I ambled over to a group of family gravestones. The dead patriarch had been commemorated by an oblong pillar that time had taken the luster from, and turned dull. Next to the pillar was a gravestone shaped like an angel, its hands clasped in prayer. A pair of woman’s underwear had been knotted around the angel’s wrists, and a bra had been tied around its head like a blindfold.
I called to my father, who emerged from the woods. He freed the bra from the angel’s face valiantly, hooking and dragging it with his stick, making swooshing motions with his arms as he lunged with his legs. Removing the underwear from the angel’s wrists was a challenge: the knots had been baked in by the sun. A pocketknife would have done the job easily. With a truncheon and stick, he could only poke and bash.
He ripped the underwear from the angel’s wrists. Using his stick like a slingshot, he tied the underwear to the bra, then used their elasticity to fling them into the woods. The little boy and I watched as the undergarments flew through the sky. My father was the liberator of a gravestone angel.
Years later, I worked with a woman at a video store. It had been torn down in the mid-1990s, but she remembered the house I’d grown up in: when she was younger, she and her friends would hang out in the cemetery and get drunk. One night when they’d all been wasted, an older boy suggested they dance naked in the moonlight. It was summer and he’d called it “Skinny Dancing,” like Skinny Dipping. She didn’t know why she’d done it, but she knew I’d gotten into hijinks as a kid, and wouldn’t judge. After she’d taken off her bra and underwear, she’d used them to gag and a tie a gravestone. The gravestone was in the shape of an angel. She hoped it hadn’t been a child’s.
Editor’s Note: Here’s the first story of Fiona Helmsley’s we published in Air in the Paragraph Line #13 back in 2010. Make sure to check out her new book, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers.
I smoked my first cigarette the same night Guns N’ Roses debuted their video for Paradise City on MTV. I was spending the night at my friend Angie Caravello’s house. We opened her bedroom window to blow the smoke outside.
“I’m high!” I said, after completing my first correct inhale. I felt tingly all over and strangely energized, even for the late hour.
“No you’re not, dummy.” Angie retorted, annoyed at my ignorance. “You’re just lightheaded. It happens the first time you get nicotine in your system. Pot, now that gets you high. Next time you come over, I’ll have my friend from West Hartford get us some.”
But I wasn’t paying attention. I was too busy feeling dizzy and watching the coal on the end of my cigarette glow each time I inhaled. I was thirteen years old.
My parents were smokers. My mom liked Virginia Slims lights, my dad Merits. My dad successfully quit the year before I started, but my parents were divorced by that time so I didn’t have to worry about him smelling the scent of my new habit. We lived next to a gas station and I’d been buying cigarettes there for my mom for years. At first, the gas station manager had no questions when the brand of choice changed from Virginia Slims to Camels, but when he noticed a group of teenagers lingering on our rooftop next door, lollipops of glowing amber hanging from our mouths, he got suspicious and called my mom.
“Fiona, are you smoking?” She asked, hanging up the telephone later that night.
It wasn’t a good time for truth. It was the height of my “Where there is doubt, make it count” phase which coincided with all of my adolescence, which made it more than just a phase. And most of my young adulthood, for that matter.
“I hope not.” My mom answered, dejectedly. “Do you remember when you used to bury my cigarettes in the yard because you didn’t want me smoking them?” She spoke with a touch of guilty nostalgia.
I did. I’d done it more than once, too. One time in particular stuck out in my mind- election night 1984. I grudgingly went next door and got my mom her coveted Virginia Slims. She was so wound up in the election results, she hardly noticed as I slunk in and out of the TV room, each time taking another cigarette from the pack I just bought for her. As Mondale/Ferraro battled Reagan/ Bush for control of the country, I battled cigarettes for control of my mom. Each kidnapped cancer stick was placed in the same mass grave in the front yard. In a scene straight out of Good Parenting 101, my mother caught me on the fifth time around and demanded a heart to heart discussion. She appreciated my concern and she loved me. She would smoke no more cigarettes for the rest of the evening, she vowed. As I went upstairs to bed, I felt hopeful.
“No, no, NO!! ” I heard my mom scream five minutes later.
Then the flick of a lighter.
Reagan/Bush had won re-election.
My mother had lasted half an hour without a cigarette.
The first time I tried to quit, I was fifteen. It was very hard. I was a freshman in high school and had already been indoctrinated to bathroom smoking. After every class, the same group of girls would gather in the same designated bathroom for a quick puff before the next bell. We were a mutual addiction society, our shared cigarette bathed in the color of five different lipsticks. We crossed economic and social stratospheres, just like the kids in The Breakfast Club, only all female and all smelling like Judd Nelson’s character. I lasted two days. I missed my friends in the bathroom.
I convinced myself that if I quit for good, it would be a quick snowball effect until my friends saw me only at class, then only the weekends and then never. It was the same with the situation with the field hockey team I’d recently been in. A lot of my friends played, which involved travel for games and a lot of on- field bonding that I wasn’t apart of. Joining the team was out because I’d never so much as picked up a stick. I knew I had to find a way to ingratiate myself into the game, but it wasn’t going to be through playing. In desperation, I agreed to carry the team cooler. Field hockey, like smoking, was something that bonded me and my friends together.
Without the cigarettes, I was getting to class early and alone. Smoking had become a matter of social survival.
My eighteenth birthday finally came and with it the right to look every convenience store clerk in the eye when they asked me for ID at the counter.
At the same time I was getting my right on, non smokers everywhere were asserting theirs. They were developing their voices and the sound was disapproving. By the time I moved to NYC for college, the non smoking contingent was loud and proud. Why should they suffer for our dirty habits?
The college board at the school I was attending heard them and decreed no smoking on campus. None of the other students seemed to mind and the school bathrooms always smelled bleach-y and smoke free. Where had all my black lung compadres gone? Anyway, I kind of agreed with the non smokers. I understood their perspective, even if I didn’t appreciate their gains. I had empathy for the innocents. Inhaling second hand smoke was like getting crabs from a public toilet. Reaping the negative consequence of someone else’s pleasure. No fair.
But when their clean air movement infiltrated the bars of NYC, effectively outlawing bar smoking citywide, it was hard to remain so cooperatively passive.
First they came for the Communists and I didn’t speak because I wasn’t a Communist…then they came for the Catholics.. and I didn’t speak because I wasn’t a Catholic…when they came for the smokers, I keep my mouth closed and ruined my chances of playing muse to a literary great.
Thaddeus Robbery was my imaginary boyfriend. I’d read his zine “Robbery” for years. Published just once a year, I read and reread each years copy till the staples wore down and the pages fell out. Thad lived hard and loved harder, devoting the pages of Robbery to his criminal exploits and crimes of the heart. Some girls aspired to Playboy, I aspired to Robbery. There was nothing I wanted more than to be one of the women Thad wrote about in his zine. Part Jack Kerouac and part Iggy Pop, Thad had sang for a series of punk bands in the late eighties, but now devoted most of his time to writing.
And as my friend Lauren explained to me, when she called to ask me if I would meet him at a bar near my apartment in Brooklyn, trying to pay the bills in typical post punk rock fashion.
As a bar dj in Williamsburg.
“Thaddeus Robbery is in Brooklyn trying to line up a dj gig at Psycho Hose Beast. I know you love him. You were the first person I thought of to show him around. He knows no one in NYC. Hook up with him at the bar there. You can thank me later.”
The street directly outside Psycho Hose Beast was one large, drunken, human ashtray. Now that smoking was no longer allowed inside, this was familiar sight outside most NYC bars. I was about to join their ranks, lighter in hand when I was distracted by a voice that I’d heard before, only coming from my record player.
“You fucking smoker scumbags! What a bunch of sorry, fucking losers. This is fucking great. I love that you dogs are out of the street. Gives me an idea of who to avoid inside.”
And with that, Thaddeus Robbery entered Psycho Hose Beast. It was a perplexing scene to witness. I didn’t know how to react. Was Thad drunk? Did he just not like smokers? Maybe a loved one had recently died of cancer? Was Thad just an asshole? The crowd outside didn’t seem to care. These drunken outdoor smoking circles were a breeding ground for his type of angry outburst. I decided it better not to keep him waiting and threw my intended cigarette to the sidewalk, mystified.
My excitement returned as I passed through the door of the bar. I had a date with Thaddeus Robbery. Sort of. I wondered how well it would translate to the written word. I’d worn an a tight, black glittery dress so Thad could use lots of adjectives.
“Well when will your boss be here?” Thad quizzed the bartender, who already seemed annoyed. He’d only been inside a few moments and was already armed with a drink and a sneer. He was getting more and more intimidating with each encounter I witnessed. I tapped him lightly on the shoulder.
“No, I don’t want to buy any fucking batteries!” Thad’s arm made a shooing motion in my direction but he didn’t turn around.
“You took the L train here, didn’t you?” I pretended to laugh, completely ignoring his nasty assumption. “Let me guess, the Chinese lady, with the cart who also sells CD’s? She is really annoying! She totally got up in my face the other day singing Baby Boy in an attempt to get me to buy the Beyonce CD.”
He stared at me blankly, as if trying to determine my origin so he could make sure I never, ever happened again.
“I’m Lauren’s friend? Fiona?”
“Oh Fiona!” His eyes teased deceptively. “Well la dee fucking da! I have no fucking idea who you are! I do know someone in New York–this cunt, Lauren–who is supposed to be my friend. But instead of doing something real uncunty–like, like say, showing up here, herself, she sends out a COMPLETE FUCKING STRANGER IN HER PLACE! “
At the same time, my phone rang. Lauren’s phone number flashed across the screen.
“Its for you.” I said, handing it to Thaddeus. I couldn’t stand the thought of listening to him argue with Lauren about what an obvious, flashing light loser I was.
“I’m going out to smoke a cigarette.” I stumbled, handing him the phone.
Thaddeus’s body bolted up right, as if a large squirrel had just attempted to penetrate his asshole without permission or lube.
“YOU’RE GOING TO SMOKE A…. CIGARETTE?” His face twisted, like saying the very word left a bitter taste in his mouth.
“No,” I interrupted, “I’m going to go outside with The Cigarettes,” I took a deep breath. How had I forgotten his anti-smoking tirade? “There a band I know.”
I took the ten steps to the door five at a time, effectively ruining his chance to respond. A group of girls leaned against a car parked outside. I could see Thaddeus staring at me through the window as he talked on my phone. I made small talk with the girls.
My nerves were a mess. I thought of asking one of the fake Cigarettes for a drag of her namesake, but Thad was still watching me through the window. This was going all wrong. Why had I made that Beyonce comment? I’d hate me too. I wanted a cigarette so badly. It was as if Thaddeus’ scolding had stripped all the residual nicotine from my system.
My imaginary boyfriend had turned abusive. Did we need imaginary counseling? He continued to glare at me through the window as he hung up my phone. I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to, I told myself. He could find me. He knew all my potential hiding spots. He had my phone.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Thaddeus was knocking on the window to get my attention. He beckoned me with his finger.
As I reentered the bar, he shoved a drink into my hand.
“I’m sorry Fiona. Its not you. Its me. Lauren told me you’re a big fan. We’d be nothing without our fans…..”
His apology sounded like a Susan Lucci Emmy acceptance speech but with unexplained plural pronouns. My palms where clammy. I was in full fledged nicotine withdrawal.
“I need to use the bathroom.” I stammered.
“Go empty yourself then.” He dismissed my weak human need with a flick of his wrist. “Don’t forget to wash your hands. I will know if you don’t.”
The walk to the bathroom was a blur. My hands shook as I closed the bathroom door, brought the cigarette to my mouth and lit it in one fell swoop. The nicotine flooded my starved cells and I felt lightheaded.
“I’m high!” I mouthed the words in tribute to Angie Caravello, seventeen years after she’d first corrected me. I wondered if she wore mom jeans now.
“All right, whatever you’re smoking in there, drop it in the bowl and come out of the stall.”
I’d been so focused on my need for nicotine I ‘d completely ignored the cardinal rule of unlawful bathroom smoking-survey the scene first. Had I not learned anything in high school? I attempted to fan the smoke cloud from the air, but it was futile. I was caught.
It was the annoyed faced bartender who’d been talking to Thad earlier.
“What aren’t you getting? I saw you outside with all the other nicotine freaks. You know the deal. There is a zero tolerance policy in effect towards smoking inside bars now. Zero. We’ve had undercover cops in here for the past month just looking for violations. It’s the bar owners that get screwed for your stupidity. What you just did could get us shut down.”
I did understand her position. I decided to take the risk that maybe she’d understand mine.
“Would you believe I’m trying to impress a guy?”
“I don’t care. Get your shit and get out.”
So this was it. This was how the evening was destined to end. It was like an after school special for “Just be yourself.” I’d gone to this great length to hide my habit only to be exposed anyway. What the fuck would I say to Thad?
The bartender held the bathroom door open.
“Alright, alright.” My Robbery dreams had, for lack of a better analogy, just gone up in smoke.
“I know I broke the rules, but come on. This is really embarrassing. I’m here tonight with a guy I really like too.”
“Oh I’m crying for you. You have two minutes to get your stuff and get out. If I have to tell you again, I promise, you will be really embarrassed.” The expression on her face reflected the truth in her statement.
I considered my options as I made my way back to the bar. Thad was slouched on his barstool, elbows on the counter. He had a fresh drink in front of him.
Telling the truth was out. Thad had made his feelings on smoking toxin- free pondwater- crystal clear. He may of been at Psycho Hose Beast for a real job interview, but I felt like my evening was a job interview of sorts, too. I was auditioning for Robbery. I was acting like an idiot, but that was just it–I was acting. I wasn’t really an idiot. People all over the world did things like this when they liked a person–hid little aspects of their personalities that didn’t translate well to first impressions.
I still had hope I could get Thad to come home with me. Surely if we couldn’t have a meeting of the minds, we could have a meeting of the bodies.
Unhappily, I foreshadowed to Thad back at my apartment, with me in and out of the bathroom all night long to smoke. I couldn’t decide which fate was worse–Thad knowing I was a smoker, or Thad thinking I had chronic diarrhea.
“You smell horrid.” Thad said, handing me a drink as I approached him, my hands still wet from the furious cigarette stink disinfecting they’d just received in the bathroom sink.
“Listen Thad, your not going to believe this but….in the bathroom…”
I looked in his eyes, searching, looking for something, anything.
“In the bathroom…..I……… met an undercover cop and she said this place is about to be busted!” I paused for dramatic effect, then grabbed my jacket and phone from the bar, hoping Thad would follow suit.
Instead he began twirling his drink stirrer, watching it as it twisted.
“And that affects us because…”
“Thad, they’re going to take the whole place down! We don’t want to be caught up in that! Come on, We got to go! This place is crawling with cops!”
I grabbed at his sleeve, catching the peeved bartender’s eye from across the room in the process.
“I’m not going anywhere. I have nothing to fucking hide. I’m an American fucking citizen. I’ll just sit here and watch and make sure they do the job right. It will be like a live action episode of Cops.” He was defiant.
“Thad you’ve got to listen to me…we have got to go……”
“What do you have to hide Fi-fi?” He eyed me mischievously. “What, are you holdin’? You holdin’ Fi-Fi? You holdin’?” He said ‘holdin’ the way one would when making fun of drug lingo. “I’m so done with all the B.S, Fi-Fi. Done. D-O-N-E.” He slurred his words. “All of it. Be honest with me, you holdin’?”
I wanted a cigarette again. My want for Thad stroked my want for nicotine. It was a vicious circle since one canceled the other out.
The bartender moved into my field of vision, glaring in my direction. My time was up.
“That’s one of them, Thad. Shes giving me the secret signal. I gotta go. The bust is going to happen any minute.”
It was all so futile and stupid. ” And, yeah, Thad, I am. I am holdin’.”
I fingered the pack of cigarettes in my pocket. They were contraband as far as he was concerned.
“You know, I could tell the moment I met you.” He touched my hand gently than quickly pounded it with his fist. “Now make fucking tracks or I’ll turn you in myself.”
I knew as I turned to leave, he was probably not serious about the second part. Thaddeus Robbery was putting on a show just as much as I was pretending I wasn’t a smoker or that I had drugs in my pocket. Just like Glenn Danzig with the gym or Henry Rollins with the IFC, Thad’s attitude was just a post punk defense mechanism.
But then, I remembered, I did have drugs in my pocket.
As I walked to the subway station, tobacco filled cigarette in one hand and marijuana filled cigarette in the other, I tried to make sense of what had just happened. In effect, I’d chosen cigarettes over Thad. Maybe not directly, but I’d known his extreme feelings about the habit and taken the risk anyway. What else could I justify doing in the name of a nicotine refuel? What other dreams where I willing to defer? Laws were I willing to break? I’d thought I’d loved Thad. Or at least the idea of being in his zine. But I now understood–I actually loved cigarettes more.
You think your guy’s hot? Well mine’s smokin’.
We’re proud to announce our latest release from Paragraph Line Books: Fiona Helmsley’s new collection, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers.
I thought I wanted to be degraded, but I wanted to be degraded with love. You wanted me to talk during sex and what came out was, “You hate me.”
Sam D’Allesandro once wrote, “I like living with the danger of what you know about me,” and the candidness on display in Fiona Helmsley’s My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers takes an incredible amount of guts.
Beginning with an epigram from Anne Sexton’s With Mercy for the Greedy and ending with an essay on the virtues of Courtney Love, in-between, her stories and essays breathe new life into the idea that the things that we are ashamed of often make for the best stories.
Badly wounding her boyfriend in a fight over money for drugs, Helmsley leaves her beloved bloody, and the responsibility of getting him to the hospital on someone else. After plotting with a friend how to best get money for drugs, their decision to charge their friends for sex leads to devastating results.
Including essays on art and persona, the rejection of the word “victim,” and an imagined meeting between Joan Vollmer Burroughs and Patti Smith at the Chelsea Hotel, Fiona Helmsley’s My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers presents a gritty and moving portrait of life on the fringes at the turn of the millennium.
Fiona Helmsley is a writer of creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. In line with the trope of comparing talented women to more revered men, she’s been called “the Eugene O’Neill of halfway house culture.” Her writing can be found online at sites like PANK, and The Rumpus, and in anthologies like Ladyland and The Best Sex Writing of the Year. She can reached through her blog, whatfionaworetoday.tumblr.com.
Made you look.
Kathy Acker was punk rock, a crazy mix of Burroughs, porn, feminism, persona, and lit history. I recently fell down a Chris Kraus k-hole, reading all the books by the experimental filmmaker and writer. She mentions (I think in Aliens and Anorexia) about how she visited Acker in Mexico during her dying days in Mexico, at a weird new-age clinic where they fed her organic food and morphine as she fell to cancer.
I coincidentally saw this piece pop up, by Jason McBride over at Hazlitt Magazine, talking about Acker’s finale in Mexico. It mentions the Kraus thing, how Acker was secretly reading her book I Love Dick, but would hide it while she was there. Anyway, check out the short article over at Hazlitt:
I was recently invited to read at a “Noir at the Bar” event at the Meshuggah Café, in Saint Louis. The reading was hosted and arranged by Jed Ayres, the crime writer, and fellow readers included Scott Phillips, author of The Ice Harvest, which was adapted by Harold Ramis into a film of the same name, starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton.
Being as this was my first time reading one of my books in public, before a crowd, I was quite anxious. I felt that I did reasonably well in my performance (selecting a chapter from one of my earlier, hardboiled crime novels, Rolling Country). After each of the invited writers had read, many books were signed and sold, and then our select group adjourned to the rooftop bar of the Moonrise Hotel, where I was staying during the course of my short visit to Saint Louis.
We discussed many topics that night, but mostly we talked about books, since writing them was our métier. Eventually, during the course of the evening, the subject turned to Cormac McCarthy’s blood-soaked Western magnum opus, Blood Meridian. For readers not familiar with the work, scholar Dana Phillips offers a more than adequate summary in the opening passages of his study, History and the Ugly Facts of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian:
“[Blood Meridian] is only very loosely centered around the character identified to the reader simply as ‘the kid’. Its opening pages offer a summary of the kid’s early life in the Tennessee hills, his flight to Texas in 1848, and his recruitment by a troop of filibusters, most of whom are slaughtered by a force of Comanche as their expedition makes its way into Mexico. The kid then joins up with Captain John Joel Glanton’s band of scalp hunters, who have a contract to provide the Mexicans with the hair of Apache raiders preying on isolated borderland villages and towns. Glanton and his men begin their own bloody campaign of depredations, which lasts for a year or two and several hundred pages. The kid is one of the few survivors of this campaign. The last chapters of the novel offer a compressed account of the final twenty-eight years of his life of wandering, and of his eventual death in an outhouse at the hands of his old comrade-in-arms, the seven-foot tall three-hundred pound hairless albino Judge Holden, a man of incredible savagery and great intellectual facility.” (Evans, 433-434)
Although generally ignored by critics, and selling in unimpressive numbers upon initial publication, the book has gone on to become something of a cause celebre in recent years. Part of the obsessive attention the book draws has something to do with the various interpretations suggested by the text. Phillips hints at the unwieldy, impossible-to-categorize nature of the book in the aforementioned essay:
“Blood Meridian is a very complicated book-although complication is not a quality often associated with the label Western…[R]eviewers attempting to map this novel’s outlandish aesthetic and moral territories resorted to striking but desperate oppositions. To them, the novel seemed a blend of Hieronymus Bosch and Sam Peckinpah; of Salvador Dali, Shakespeare, and the Bible; of Faulkner and Fellini; of Gustave Dore, Louis L ‘Amour, Dante, and Goya; of cowboys and nothingness; of Texas and Vietnam.” (434)
My own personal feelings about Blood Meridian are a bit more prosaic: I find the novel to be a pretentious, nearly-unreadable pastiche hybrid of every writer from Ernest Hemingway, to H.P. Lovecraft, to Norman Mailer. I concede this statement is harsh, and would thus like to qualify it by adding two caveats, the first being that I consider Cormac McCarthy to be far superior to me as a writer, and that, secondly, while I find Blood Meridian to be a grim, impenetrable slog, I have enjoyed some of Mr. McCarthy’s other books (including No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses) immensely.
It must also be said that, regardless of what one thinks of the man’s writing, McCarthy belongs to a small corpus of postmodern stylists who have eschewed all of the blandishments of fame, shunning the limelight and remaining publicly indifferent to all the encomiums showered on his work. On the continuum where authors can be plotted, from the most reclusive to the most shamelessly fame-mongering, Cormac McCarthy could perhaps best be contextually situated somewhere between J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon (the latter of whom did actually lent his voice to an episode of The Simpsons, something it would be unfathomable to imagine McCarthy doing). According to Dana Phillips:
“Throughout most of his career, which began in the mid-1960s, McCarthy had worked and published in obscurity. Promotional campaigns meant little to him; he refused the interviews, personal appearances, and academic sinecures that might have made his name more widely known sooner. And for many years his readership was limited to a small group of admirers mostly from the South.” (433)
Decorum alone, however, cannot excuse the stylistic excesses and abysmal lack of narrative fluidity that, in my opinion, comprise the bulk of Blood Meridian. The author Charles Portis, something of a recluse in his own right, not only ignores the praise heaped on him and his work, but the Arkansan also wrote what I consider to be a far superior Western, True Grit (adapted for the screen twice, first in a film starring John Wayne, and then in a later, more faithful adaptation, filmed by the Coen Brothers and starring Jeff Bridges).
Several of my fellow scribes at the rooftop bar that night took umbrage at my strong opinion of Blood Meridian. One, Jed Ayres (author of Fierce Bitches and Peckerwood), arched and eyebrow and said, “You don’t like epics, huh?”
I shook my head. The epic nature of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is not what I find risible about the book. In point of fact, I love epics, and, though the genre is most often associated with works of antiquity, I count at least two modern novels as epics, and number them among my ten all-time favorite reads, the first being Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and the latter of the two being Mitchell Smith’s Stone City.
In To Disenchant and Disintoxicate (sic): Blood Meridian as critical Epic, author Justin Evans categorizes Blood Meridian as an epic, but qualifies this statement by adding that McCarthy subjects (and perhaps subverts) the genre, by giving it the postmodern treatment:
“By analogy with critical theory, we can read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985) as a ‘critical epic.’ It tries to make this most traditional literary form into a self-reflexive and self-critical but idealistic agent, one that respects the ideals of traditional literary forms but radicalizes them in order to criticize modern societies… [s]ince the epic has often been tied to the affirmation of social norms.” (405)
The extreme violence of the book, many have argued, is meant to be read as an allegory or metaphor for every Occidental form of violent dominance and subjugation (often with racist undertones or outright xenophobic justifications), from imperialism to Manifest Destiny, to, as previously mentioned by scholar Dana Phillips, American intervention in Vietnam.
The violence of the book is one of my central objections to Blood Meridian, though not because the gore serves as an allegory, criticizing the bloodshed inherent in the maintenance of Western hegemonic supremacy in global affairs. My problem with the violence is that its cumulative effect is to first inure the reader, and then ultimately to bore them, numbing them with the fugue-like repetition of descriptive passages detailing scalpings, hangings, and eviscerations, one after another. Much like Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho or Marquis De Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinism, the horror is not delivered with the irregularity that gives a suspenseful tale of terror its power to shock. The book is just a narratively slack catalogue of abuses.
According to James Dorson, in his article Demystifying the Judge: Law and Mythical Violence in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: “Since its publication in 1985, the extreme scenes of violence in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian have posed a central problem for critics.” (105). Dorson argues (or rationalizes) the violence not by “…either historicizing it in the context of American imperialism, or by naturalizing it as part and parcel of the human condition…” (IBID), but rather “[t]hrough a reading of Judge Holden’s character as a figure of the law… propos[ing] instead to read its violence as the result of a metaphysical yearning for meaning to brace us against the fear of the unknown.” (IBID)
The problem with the character of the Judge, though (the main antagonist in this fatalist epic) is that while he may be, for Dorson, a symbol for “a metaphysical yearning for meaning to brace us against the fear of the unknown,” he is not believable as a character; he is merely a cipher for the philosophical pontification that Dorson mistakes for profound meaning. Characters can work as symbols, but they must first stand inspection as flesh and blood creatures, as did, for instance Captain Ahab or Mr. Kurtz, in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick or in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, respectively. Both men are violent, and arguably mad, but the creators of Ahab and Kurtz ably show, through slowly unfurling, revelatory passages, how these men arrived at their barbarized states.
Dorson, meanwhile, undercuts his own argument and inadvertently bolsters mine, when he writes, “There is no ‘atavistic egg,’ neither divine nor secular, that can explain or legitimate [the Judge’s] existence. There is no ground to base his rule upon, just ‘the shore of a void’ (111) from which all of his unfathomable malice arises.” (160) The Judge is about as real and complex as the villain in a slasher movie aimed at a teenage audience, although McCarthy is talented enough to cloak his character’s deficiencies in a literary patina that might distract the reader from realizing the Judge is not the creation of the 19th century’s bloody, Westward expansion, but is a boogeyman, created ex nihilo for the sole purpose of killing, like the numerous “baddies” Jason, Freddy, etc., who populate the exploitation genre once derisively referred to as “dead teenager movies.”
Dorson even echoes my sentiments on the subject of the more general violence of the novel, rather than that specific to the judge: “The sheer accumulation of atrocities and their matter-of-fact representation, characteristic of the novel, tend to break down any semblance of plot and make it difficult for readers to cognitively process the violence.” (IBID)
My own writing is quite violent. My latest novel, for instance, the Western, The Dove and the Crow, has already drawn mixed reviews from readers due to its gore and brutality. My previous published Western, Orphan Elixir, has also elicited revulsion in a number of people who have read the work, and have registered their disgust at various critical outlets, like Amazon.com and Goodreads. In defense of my own works, though, I should say that the violence in Orphan Elixir or The Dove and the Crow is leavened with humor and scenes of general tranquility. Blood Meridian, on the other hand, bludgeons the reader with redundant orgies of sadism, a cheerless litany that makes the book a chore to read.
The violence, which I have discussed at length, is not the only aspect of the novel that is desensitizing and renders the book virtually unreadable. It is, at a fundamental level, poorly written, in punishingly tumescent prose that alternates between the baroque and a kind of tone-deaf, affectless turgidity. The book is afflicted with what, after having encountered it many times in print, I have uncharitably dubbed “And-itus” (sic), a kind of writing in which a seemingly numberless stack of coordinating conjunctions denature the prose of any sort of rhythm or cadence. Here is a sample, quoted by Dorson:
“…riding down the unhorsed Saxons and spearing and clubbing them […] and stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows.” (IBID)
I lost count of the number of times the word “and” was used in the above passage, but the diligent (or obsessive-compulsively inclined) reader is welcome to do the tally. McCarthy’s prose, spellbinding when he’s in rare form (as in his post-apocalyptic novel, The Road), can be quite a thing to behold. In the case of Blood Meridian, though, the writing recalls Truman Capote’s pithy (but perhaps apocryphal) assessment of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “That’s not writing; that’s typing.” Kerouac, at least, had the twin excuses of attempting to create a literary style akin to jazz music, and the effects of an amphetamine bender, to absolve him of his redundancies. McCarthy has fewer excuses.
The only plausible apologia for this kind of excess is offered by the previously-quoted Justin Evans, who, sees such language as innate to the “formal devices of the epic” (406), a parataxis, “…the yoking together of words or phrases or even sentences by simple conjunctions like ‘and,’ rather than the use of subordinate clauses.” (IBID). It is little wonder, then, that the book has drawn comparison not only to the epics of Greek antiquity, but also to the Bible, which, regardless of one’s faith or which translation they prefer, does become quite soporific, especially in its recounting of who begat whom; replace the word “begat” with “scalped,” however, and it becomes even easier to understand why Blood Meridian and the Bible might deserve space on the same shelf.
When McCarthy isn’t stringing coordinating conjunctions together like a washerwoman hanging up laundry on a clothesline, he seems to be doing a pastiche of H.P. Lovecraft at his most misanthropically byzantine and eldritch. Dorson highlights this nearly-saurian stylistic tic in his essay, by singling out the following passage, which serves our purpose here nicely: “In that sleep and in sleeps to follow the judge did visit. Who would come other? A great shambling mutant, silent and serene. Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of any ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing.” (310)
This sort of writing can be effective in small doses, as in the case of Lovecraft’s short stories. Over the course of a novel of epic length, however, attempting to decipher the meaning of McCarthy’s words merely becomes a psychic endurance test. Along with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, I read Blood Meridian cover to cover, not because I enjoyed it, but because I hated it, and felt that by finishing the book I was somehow defeating an unseen, unfathomably alien intelligence that had lured me into a masochistic test of wills, from which I could only emerge victorious after reading my way through the gauntlet of senseless words laid across the page.
The hands on the clock seemed to draw to a standstill as I read the book, as “time [was] often slowed down to a repetitive and homogenous grind, where the action seem[ed] frozen into a gaudy fresco of massacres and mutilation.” (Dorson, 110)
And now, having read the book and written of it, I hope to never speak of it again. I will say, though, that in spite of my genuine loathing for Blood Meridian, I was somewhat excited to learn that it was being considered for film adaptation by two men, first Ridley Scott, and then later by Andrew Dominik. Both men eventually dropped out of the project for different reasons, Scott to pursue a then-unspecified project, and Andrew Dominik to helm an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel about the ill-fated starlet Marilyn Monroe, Blonde, tentatively scheduled for a 2016 release and starring the lovely Naomi Watts, of Mulholland Drive fame.
How, the reader may wonder, after this scathing essay, could I be looking forward to a film adaptation of a book I despise? The answer is simple: My issue lies with the prose of McCarthy’s work, which, when converted into visual poetry (preferably by Aussie Andrew Dominik, who helmed the masterful adaptation of Ron Hansen’s Western, The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) might become a thing entirely separate from, and wholly superior to, the novel that serves as its source material.
It has been said that mediocre books make great films, and both Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Francis Coppola’s The Godfather, based respectively on inferior works by Peter Benchley and Mario Puzzo, lend more than a modicum of credence to this theory. It is, then, perhaps more than plausible that a great film can be salvaged from the wreckage of Cormac McCarthy’s bloated Western.
I would like to close this essay by saying that, despite the sometimes snarky, sometimes exasperated tone of this work, I by no means meant the assessment in the sulfurous spirit of, for instance, Mark Twain’s condemnation of James Fenimore Cooper’s writing, Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses. When Twain vented his spleen (with, it should be added, a satiric scalpel far finer than mine), he meant to encompass the whole corpus of Cooper’s body of work. I, on the other hand, can only reiterate that, with the exception of Blood Meridian, I have enjoyed most of what I’ve read by McCarthy, that I consider him to be a far superior writer to me, and that, long after the three Westerns I’ve written have faded into the ether of memory, or sit stored and cached on some seldom-frequented server at the corner of the internet, people will be still talking about Blood Meridian, and Cormac McCarthy.
Dorson, James. Demystifying the Judge: Law and Mythical Violence in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Journal of Modern Literature. Vol. 36, Aesthetic Politics-Revolutionary and Counter-Revolutionary (Winter 2013), pp. 105-121. Indiana University Press. Print.
Evans, Justin. To Disenchant and Disintoxicate (sic): Blood Meridian as Critical Epic. Modern Philology, Vol. 112, No. 2 (November 2014), pp. 405-426. University of Chicago Press. Print.
Phillips, Dana. History and the Ugly Facts of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. American Literature, Vol. 68, No. 2 (Jun., 1996), pp. 433-460. Duke University Press. Print.
Joseph Hirsch is the author of The Dove and the Crow, a weird western.
I like “genre-bending,” as Rory Costello once called what I do. Sometimes I get carried away with myself and piss readers off with my experimentation. My novel Kentucky Bestiary (available from Paragraph Line, buy ten copies now, thank you) was, much like the alter-ego of scribe John Fante “neither fish nor fowl.” The first half of the book was a police procedural, while the second half was a supernatural horror story.
There are at least two “three-star” reviews on Amazon for Kentucky Bestiary. A three-star review, according to the Great Satan Jeff Bezos, means the readers thought the book was just okay, not good. One of the readers said, in essence, “Hirsch was on a roll with the police procedural, but all of a sudden the story dovetailed into this absurd horror and fantasy yarn.” Another three-star reviewer said, basically, “The first half of the book was so boring, and was just another humdrum cop yarn. But the second half, the horror half, was great.”
The comedian Mitch Hedberg (RIP) once said, “You can’t please everybody. And last night, all of those people were at my show.” I guess you could say that, as a writer, I can’t please everybody, and all those people read Kentucky Bestiary. But I wrote it, and I like it, and whether it is selfish of me to say this or not, I feel like that is all a writer need say to feel (s)he accomplished his/her goals.
Melville and Fitzgerald died believing themselves to be mediocrities. Their books get a lot of “five-star” reviews these days, but if Amazon existed in the American Renaissance or Roaring Twenties period, I’ll bet you Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby would not have been treated as classics, but as puzzling failures.
Not that I’m comparing myself to either one of those men. The bottom line is that I will have to be dead for fifty years or so before I get to find out whether or not I’m worth a shit as a writer, at least as far as history is concerned.
Editor’s note: Joseph Hirsch is the author of The Dove and the Crow.
Roger Ebert (RIP), in his review of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, observed that “[t]he Western has been mostly in hibernation since the 1970s, but now I sense it stirring in rebirth. We have a program to register the most-read reviews on my Web site, and for the month of September the overwhelming leader was not Eastern Promises, not Shoot ’em up, not The Brave One, but 3:10 to Yuma. Now here is another Western in the classical tradition.”
Ebert was right, of course, but his musings beg the question: how many genres go into “hibernation?” Jesse James was the first great Western since Unforgiven, in my opinion (1992). Jesse James was made in 2007. Fifteen years is a long time to wait, for anything.
It doesn’t seem to me like other genres (from crime pictures to romantic comedies) “hibernate” or are even held to the same standard as the Western. The genre (both in print and film) is always, according to some, on its deathbed. I never hear people proclaim that “SF is dead,” probably because it is, by nature, future and idea-oriented, whereas the Western (excluding subgenres) is concerned with the past, which is fixed in place.
Just thinking out loud.
What is PTSD? According to Wikipedia, the only source worth quoting aside from the King James Bible, “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may develop after a person is exposed to one or more traumatic events, such as major stress, sexual assault, terrorism, or other threats on a person’s life. The diagnosis may be given when a group of symptoms, such as disturbing recurring flashbacks, avoidance or numbing of memories of the event, and hyperarousal, continue for more than a month after the occurrence of a traumatic event.”
For every person it’s different, I suppose. A woman who was sexually assaulted is likely to experience her PTSD differently than me, a veteran of the war in Iraq.
Portrayals of the disorder range from the highly memorable (Travis Bickle, in Taxi Driver), to high parody (John Rambo, as played by Sylvester Stallone in the Rambo series). The Great War vet and author Ernst Junger once said something to the effect that war was a schooling of the heart, a fire that could temper a man like steel in the forge, or melt him if he was not up to the challenge. What’s so absurd about the fictional character of John Rambo is not so much that he is tempered by his experiences in Indochina; he is given a steroid injection by the Vietnam war, which is a silly bit of farce that Gus Hasford called “bullshit,” shouting it from the rooftops (Gus was a marine who wrote The Short-Timers, which was turned into the Stanley Kubrick film, Full Metal Jacket). I think Sly Stallone actually spent the Vietnam War coaching soccer at a boarding school for young girls in Sweden, but I’m too lazy to consult the oracular vulgate of Wikipedian truths to find out right now.
The most even-handed treatment of the illness, for my money, is John Sheppard’s Alpha Mike Foxtrot. Read it if you haven’t (I may read it again here, soon).
For me, PTSD is like a second, permanent pubescence. My nerves are a mess, and I never truly feel calm. I try to limit my interaction with women to my professional life (writing and pursuing my Master’s) degree. It’s not that I’m a misogynist; it’s just that women are biologically trained, for solid evolutionary reasons, to despise weak men.
I remember a female comedian a long time ago (maybe Judy Tenuta) having a bit about how she had to fart really badly on a date, held it in, and then exploded like a balloon releasing helium the moment she got home.
I feel a psychic pressure akin to Judy’s gas, building in me constantly, making my hands tremble and my voice quake. Frankly, the act of trying to conceal how weak I am (how I was melted by the fire to which Junger alluded), is just too taxing, and I prefer to stay home, listen to music, write, and walk my dog.
Another comic (this time I’m sure it was Bill Hicks) once said that the show Blind Date made masturbation look like a spiritual quest. I have to concur, and I think I’m retired from the dating game, permanently now.
My only hope for love or companionship at this point is going the Bukowski route, using what I think he called the dim flame of his literary talent to draw butterflies.