What I'm Reading

Geoff Dyer… and Frietag Bags

I wanted to write about this really cool bag. This time it’s actually the last bag I’ll ever need. But there’s some background involving, as usual, what I’ve been reading, in my usual desultory fashion.

It’s no secret that I think Geoff Dyer is one of the best writers out there. I admire his clean style and his phenomenal range of interests. And for what should be obvious reasons, I really like that his essays and books are invariably about something other than what they are about. Or, better, say, something, many things, in addition to what they are about. This line he wrote about John Berger could easily be applied to him as well:

It is not just that he has written on photographers, artists, thinkers and peasants, or zoos, museums and cities he has travelled to; these diverse concerns are often combined in the course of a single essay.1

And it is generally these threads that contain some detail that ends up changing my life. Take “Is Jazz Dead?” for example. This essay appears in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, which happens to be the first Dyer essay collection I read (I had read Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi … a great novel). In this essay exploring some of the new forms “jazz” is taking, Dyer discusses the brilliant—what does one call them … post-jazz or ambient jazz?—trio out of Australia, the Necks, especially their album Drive By.

Drive By glides through an ambient dream-time of “found” sounds: a children’s playground, crickets, a beehive. Where the previous albums are reliable, slightly embellished records of sustained improvisations in “real time,” this one was built out of segments that were then overdubbed and restructured in the edit, like a sound track for a road movie waiting to be made. I don’t know if it’s jazz, but it’s a great record and I love it; you’d be mad not to.

I ordered it immediately. I seem to remember Dyer suggesting somewhere that Drive By was the best of the albums by the Necks. I ordered them all, some directly from Australia. Ultimately, I decided Drive By was my favorite.

But it was my experience after reading Zona, Dyer’s brilliant and idiosyncratic treatment of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, that is relevant here. He recounts in a lengthy aside (all parenthetical) his experience of losing a much loved bag, an experience that gives him greater insight into the character of the professor, who wants to return to where he lost his knapsack to retrieve it.

It so happens that, right now, I identify absolutely with Professor’s desire to be reunited with his rucksack. Six years ago my wife came back from a trip to Berlin with one of those Freitag bags made out of recycled truck tarps and seat belts. Unlike some Freitag bags it was rather plain—plain grey in fact—and initially I was a little disappointed. Over time, though, I came to see that she had made the wisest possible choice and I came to love that bag absolutely. And then, ten days ago in Adelaide, in the course of a long, multifaceted, multi-drinks evening, I lost it, either in a restaurant, at a party, in a taxi or at the gardens of the Arts Festival. No one handed in my bag. It was gone—and is not identically replaceable.

One of those Freitag bags … I checked out the Freitag website and, yes, I loved those bags. I went back and forth for some weeks, as the bags are pretty expensive, but ultimately, I had to have one. It’s vegan. (I had stopped buying leather bags, but even fabric ones seem to have decorative trim or reinforcing straps made from some kind of hide. And while we’re on the subject, what’s up with those pointless little leather rectangles they sew on the back of jeans? Maybe they recall some former functioning thing, like a giant off-center belt loop. And now it’s just a skeuomorph. I don’t like it.) But I do like my Freitag bag. It’s sturdy and beautiful and one of a kind. I love it. I hope I never lose it.

I resent the fact that Geoff Dyer makes me spend so much money when I have so little. Not only must I buy all of his books, but I have to order records and pricey bags. And go places, too. Have you read Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It? It’s a book of travel essays. It’s worth it for the name alone. Shove it in your Freitag bag and by a ticket … to anyplace, really.

1 From the introduction to Selected Essays of John Berger.

How Orwell Got It Wrong

I’ve been reading the monumental four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell. It is outstanding. The average educated reader (if such a thing exists anymore) probably remembers Orwell for 1984 and Animal Farm and perhaps she vaguely remembers reading a couple of essays in college, “Politics and the English Language” and “A Hanging,” say.

This is a shame. While 1984 is one of the most important works of the twentieth century, Orwell’s essays are his greatest contribution to English literature … and not just the famous ones. There is something to be gleaned from every page of this fine collection. Even random letters offer real insight into Orwell’s worldview.

Take #26 in Volume Four: Letter to the Reverend Herbert Rogers, in which Orwell explains a review he had recently written of a book called The Democrat at the Supper Table. The book seems to be a series of contrived conversations wherein the narrator, a conservative Catholic, rails against the modern world and its various evil “-isms” (“Communism, feminism, atheism, pacifism”).

Orwell lambastes G.K. Chesterton’s feudal worldview and presents the author of this work, Colm Brogan, as merely a slight update on Chesterton and his antiquated notions. Orwell paints the author as hopelessly outdated for his rejection of planning and government regulation. I found one line especially moving, in that it’s prediction proved so wrong. In this 1946 letter he says: “I don’t myself feel at all certain that this civilisation will survive, but if it does survive I think it is quite obvious that it will not revert again towards economic chaos and individualism.” By “economic chaos” it is clear that Orwell means laissez faire capitalism. Orwell could not conceive of a deregulated world of capitalism run amok, where narcissistic individuals put their own petty pleasures above any working sense of ethical behavior.

It’s not a slight against Orwell. Orwell died in 1950. And while John Maynard Keynes died the year this letter was written, the school of economic thought that bears his name dominated economic thinking and planning for decades. Keynesian theory supported robust government intervention in guiding western economies. By the 80s his views started to fall out of favor as conservatives pushed for limited regulation and minimal state intervention. Then the global economy almost collapsed several years ago.

Keynesianism started to look pretty good once again. I’d like to think what Orwell said almost 70 years ago might prove true once again. But I’m doubtful.

Image by Moses King (scan of postcard) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Breeds of America

I just read a beautiful essay by William Melvin Kelley called “Breeds of America” (It was republished in The Best American Essays 2013). It’s a moving account of a young African-American discovering race and racism growing up in the Bronx in the fifties. Reading it in late 2014 in Saint Louis, Missouri is a poignant experience.

Then in summer 1955 came the murder of Emmett Till. Damn.

His courageous mother made us look at his battered, bloated face. See what you’ve done to my boy. I saw myself in Emmet Till, an outgoing and adventurous fourteen-year-old from Chicago who considered racism and segregation a crazy joke, who was accustomed to talking boldly to anybody, even to some policemen, not realizing the COLORED and WHITE signs really meant something, complimenting a pretty girl I did not know, like in Chicago and New York. Hey baby, Emmett Till said to Miss Carolyn. Hey baby.

The murder of light-skinned Emmett Till made me feel like a real Negro. Your skin shade, your manners, your voice didn’t really matter. Say the wrong thing to the wrong Euro and you’d end up brutalized, beaten, hanged, shot, drowned, killed, dead. Underneath it all, Euros hated us and thought nothing of killing us.

I guess we can be thankful we don’t have those COLORED and WHITE signs anymore. We just have everything they once stood for.

Photo credit: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Abolition… Origin… Perdido Street

Reading for me is a kind of infinite chain of associations, or I suppose tree, as it keeps bifurcating and branching off in many directions. A regular where I tend bar lent me a copy of a book he had just reread. The Abolition of Species is a recent work of German SF by Dietmar Dath. Our regular, Jon, is never without a book or Kindle. Working in a bar without a television is nice. People actually carry on intelligent conversations (and some stupid ones). When Jon lent me the book, he said “no hurry.”

I’m not a slow reader, and it’s not that I get distracted, but I do get drawn along multiple paths at once. “The Abolition of Species,” I thought … an obvious riff on Darwin’s Origin of Species, which I immediately started reading. And the initial descriptions of creatures, some recognizable and some not quite reminded me strongly of Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. Now I want to revisit that. And I’m only twenty pages into Dath’s novel.

This could take a while. Apologies in advance to Jon.

A Brief Note on Reading, Writing, and the Life of Adventure

One good thing to come out of teaching an online class this term is reading Tobias Wolff for the first time. “Bullet in the Brain” is such a good story, I wanted to read something else by him. His memoir of his tour of duty in Vietnam called out to me, so I picked up a copy of In Pharoah’s Army and am reading it now. It’s good. I am finishing the section on his Airborne training. He limns this portrait beautifully and it’s governed in part by his sense that this kind of adventure, and military service, and even war experience, is critical to the formation of a writer. He cites precedents, not the least of whom is Ernest Hemingway. Most of all this just makes me think of how little I agree with this in my case.

I will happily read about adventure, provided I am in a well-insulated house with efficient climate control systems and a very well-stocked liquor cabinet. I have no desire to jump out of airplanes or fight in a war. I just want to read books. But on balance, what I’ve mostly read about is non-adventure, you know, Beckett, Kafka, Proust.

I do like to travel (and have been reading some travel classics like Blue Highways, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, and Great Plains). I do not camp, though, and “roughing it” includes spending any amount of time without access to bars and room service and Wifi. I am a traveler who demands powerful, hygienic toilets and snow-white, king-size beds. I need blackout curtains and Bloody Marys. And a good book. Even one about someone headed off to the grim pleasures of Special Forces training. I’ll just enjoy that vicariously, Mr. Wolff, with a cocktail in hand and no one barking orders halitosistically into my soft, inexperienced face.

Goodbye Porkpie Hat

I’m thinking about Lester Young. Waking up in the night with the stereo on, hearing that soft and kind of peppy saxophone with a million tons of emotional weight buried beneath that easy sound, I realize that everything I know about Lester Young, I learned from Geoff Dyer. Here was a great artist whose spirit was almost broken by its ugly contact with authority. And I think about how Dyer’s story about the greatest jazz artists in history is also the story of police brutality. That ugly history isn’t buried in our past, as the residents of #Ferguson, Missouri know today.

And I think how earlier today I went to the store to grab a few things, and on the way in, I saw this tall, African-American guy with huge beautiful dreads and a little bebop goatee. He had a Pixies T-shirt on and trim desert camo trousers. He said, “Hey, how ya doin’?” He greeted me because I was grinning at him like an idiot. I’m glad he recognized my loony smile for a friendly sign; I just kind of liked him. And I wish a lot more people just liked each other, instead of mistrusting one another. (I wanted to say, “I saw the Pixies in 1990 at Foellinger Auditorium in Urbana, Illinois. I was in the front row. Kim Deal dropped cigarette ash on me.” But instead I just smiled shyly and said, “Hey.”) Music brings us together.

The Army doctor who interviewed Young in advance of his court martial wrote in his notes, among other things, “Jazz.” A one-word indictment, a term embodying his fear and ignorance, his suspicion of the black world, alien and ugly to his square-white worldview, but it is a cry in the night, too. Maybe it’s that cry that woke me and made me think about jazz and black and white and how we’re all pretty much as dumb as we ever were. I’m thinking about Lester Young now and how he drowned his spirit in gallons of lovely silver gin. Hey, Pres, you were the best.

I’m glad that Dyer later depicts a cop who treats Bud Powell with respect and care, who approaches him with caution and even reverence and who, according to Dyer’s beautiful account, colors his final days of madness with the gentle tones of humanity, instead of the ugly sounds of bigotry and fear. I lift my little late-night glass and utter a silent prayer for more people like this gentle peace officer and fewer like the evil human shit of a lieutenant who degraded Lester Young, and all the others who react to black skin with fear and anger. Is it really the early days of the 21st century? Let us come to our collective senses, if it’s not too late. Maybe if we all just listened to that almost mischievous-sounding tenor saxophone, we might become a little more human, we might become better people. We could greet strangers with a smile and a sense of shared humanity, instead of a disrespectful sneer. Maybe, given the chance, we could even love each other.

The Book of Gin

The Book of Gin by Richard Barnett may be as dry as the London Dry Gin it tracks throughout history and ultimately celebrates as our most civilized spirit. That’s not to say the book is not enjoyable, because it is, but Barnett’s academic background is apparent throughout. That’s a plus in terms of the thorough treatment of the subject.

The story of gin starts with the alchemical discovery of distillation in the middle ages, combined with the use of botanically infused cordials for health purposes. These early proto-gins were largely monastic creations, but it was the early medical community that promoted the virtues of taking these cordials for a variety of health benefits. The mid sixteenth century saw the Dissolution of the Monasteries after Henry VIII’s break with the Roman church. Women now started distilling these cordials at home, but production soon grew to commercial proportions as tipplers discovered these proto-gins to be rather enjoyable to drink, not just as health tonics.

During this same period, the precursor to modern gin was developed by Dutch doctors and apothecaries. Wild juniper was ubiquitous and did a good job of hiding the rough edges of grain spirits. Soon the Dutch thirst for genever spread as sailors with the Dutch East India Company took their preferred spirit with them on their voyages. It was the English, though, who really developed a taste for gin and London became the epicenter of “the gin craze.” Here all the factors were in place for gin to become cheap escape from the brutal lives of the urban poor. And so almost as soon as gin became common (in every sense of the word), the rumblings of the moralists began. At this point the story of gin becomes sad. Barnett is most thorough here, though I was ready to move on to bright young things quaffing cocktails and whiskered and monocled colonials swilling G&Ts in the subcontinental heat. But before gin rises again, it must fall to its low point, so we have lots of quotes condemning gin and its disastrous societal effects, the Gin Acts meant to curb production and consumption, and William Hogarth’s iconic engraving “Gin Lane,” which shows a London firmly in the grips of the filthy claws of demon Gin.

At this very point, some of England’s oldest distilleries were established and a new technique of continuous distillation and rectification vastly increased the capacity to produce London dry gin. Medical thinking had shifted against gin, fire in the bosom now, rather than an enlivening tonic. But the moral opprobrium cast upon spirits crossed the ocean to the new world, where Americans in the latter part of the nineteenth century had already begun their foolish march toward prohibition.

Before we come to the immense growth of cocktail consumption ironically brought about in the U.S. by prohibition, we return to the British Empire and a series of discoveries that have enriched our lives immeasurably. First cinchona or quinine was introduced from South America to Europe by the Spaniards. A little more than a century later, Joseph Priestly created the first carbonated water. The stage was set for the gin and tonic. Without this drink, life would be so much meaningless rubbish to be stoically endured. But gin is also the base for countless other outstanding cocktails and two more discoveries went on to enrich our drinking lives in ways we often fail to adequately appreciate. The early nineteenth century saw the development of both Peychaud’s bitters (more frequently paired with rye whisky in the Sazerac) and Angostura bitters (a German product, but immensely popular with the Brits). Any reader of Evelyn Waugh knows the ubiquitous pink gin that pairs our favorite spirit with Angostura bitters. By the late nineteenth century, the British finally had a method of preserving limes during long sea voyages so the sailors might avoid scurvy. A Scotsman named Lauchlin Rose preserved lime juice by adding a little sulphur dioxide. Everything was now in place for the growth of a serious cocktail culture.

Many pre-prohibition drink mixing guides make it clear that the late nineteenth century already knew some outstanding cocktails, but it must have been the poor quality of illegal spirits during prohibition that necessitated adding a variety of mixers to render them palatable. Prohibition also made cocktails and speakeasies icons of stylish defiance, as well-dressed funseekers quaffed gin late into the night, blithely ignoring the law of the land that would keep good Americans sober. Many Americans simply left America. The lost generation spent much of the period between the wars in Europe. Hemingway and Fitzgerald surely came to epitomize the hard-drinking American author.

We now reach what is perhaps the highpoint of the story of gin. The martini, whose origins are somewhat mysterious, already existed. But it took quality gin to make it well. After the end of prohibition, access to fine spirits returned. The martini must be regarded as the quintessence of gin cocktails. Barnett is good on the fetish for extremely dry martinis, where the vermouth is often omitted altogether. This became the drink embodying the aspirations of a generation during America’s most prosperous decades just after WWII. The semiotic density of that conical glass filled with iced gin could surely be unpacked to reveal the portrait of a nation at one point in time. But that time passed, and that generation came to be regarded as hopelessly square. The cocktail was just one of the symbols of that square life. And so the cocktail (and beautiful gin) went into decline.

Barnett ends on a positive note as the new generation has embraced spirits and the cocktail culture. A new generation of mixologists is resurrecting classic cocktails and creating its own. Small-batch distillers are thriving, in the U.S. as well as England.

It’s a good time to be a drunkard.

The Lost Scrapbook

So my friend Brandmatt emailed me a while back and asked if I had heard of a writer named Evan Dara. I hadn’t. Matt said he was reading The Lost Scrapbook* and that it was great. O.K., so that was enough for me to get a copy … but when I looked for one, what I saw about it made me want it even more: “most accomplished first novel since William Gaddis’ [sic] The Recognitions,* and then his second novel was compared to Infinite Jest.* Oh boy. So I really had to get a copy. But it’s out of print. And I had just ordered one of the last copies available of William Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down,* his seven-volume study of violence, which set me back $500 (though counter-intuitively ordered through what McSweeny’s advertised as a sale). But then William Vollmann himself had picked The Lost Scrapbook as the winner of a national fiction competition. So I ended up finding a used copy for $18. And though I’ve been super busy the past few days between teaching and work, I’ve managed to burn through 360 pages. And it is great. The comparisons with Gaddis and DFW are valid, though his voice is his own. He also has a kind of DeLilloan ear for a wide range of speaking voices. There are a lot of these voices in the novel, and Dara shifts more or less seamlessly between them. That aspect reminds me of my own abandoned novel Vox Americana (especially a one-sided telephone conversation1—I used that a few times … not that I do it very seamlessly … and, and … on rereading it, having abandoned it was probably for the best. So I guess I don’t have to bother going back and finishing it.). I’ve got 116 pages to go to see how Dara uses the eponymous scrapbook to tie everything together. But it’s worth reading for the sound alone.

1 An excerpt from an abandoned novel called Vox Americana:


Max Hockney here. Wanted to touch base with you, make sure we’re on the same page.

We’ll set up a meeting…

Thursday? No good. Got a full platter this Thursday, three meetings.

Next Tuesday? O.K. Let’s pen that in tentatively. Wanted to jot down some notes, set an agenda for our meeting.

Yes, I understand you’ve raised a boner of contention…

No, I realize that, in terms of violence against women, you don’t want to beat around the bush…

Yes, but Crapper’s a little worried that when you present your concerns at the A&S meeting on rap studies, you’ll be like a bug in a china shop…

No, your concerns are certainly…

Yes, I always say, the squeaking wheel gets greased…

No, I don’t want to give you the bum’s rash, here, that’s why I want to meet with you, really hash it out before the vote at the big meeting.

Yes, but Crapper won’t whitewash this fellow, he’s got integrity, not afraid to call this Emcee Dirty a Spade…

No, I wouldn’t be afraid that he’ll…

Yes, I suppose that’s right, but R.S.…

No, that’s rap studies…

Yes, I think it really grabs you below the belt…

No, you see, as I was saying, some of the funding for R.S. may get channeled to other departments…

Yes, we’re all in the same bed here…

No, there’s no reason we can’t all divide the spoilage…

Yes, given current budgetary shortfalls, R.S. may give us an opportunity to kill two birds with one bush.

No, we’ll still air out any concerns you have.

Yes, as the First Lady of women’s studies, I’d like you to compile all the input from your colleagues, anything that might help the college get impacted …

No, I’m aware that, this time of the semester, your beaver is busy, just see if you can get your main concerns prioritized, then we can nickel and dime them.


See you next Tuesday, then.

Bye now.

My Country Right or Left

Is this the first public critique of the one percent to explicitly use that construction?

3 June [1940]

From a letter from Lady Oxford to the Daily Telegraph, on the subject of war economies:

“Since most London houses are deserted there is little entertaining. …. in any case, most people have to part with their cooks and live in hotels.”

Apparently nothing will ever teach these people that the other 99% of the population exists. (344)

Ellipses in the original.

Fear and Loathing at the Flamingo: Some Scattered Reflections on a Book and a Dream that Went Sour Before Any of Us Awakened

I cannot adequately express my initial reaction to Las Vegas … it was something like complete outrage. Never has any other place repulsed me so totally. We pulled into town close to midnight on a Monday night and the streets were thronged with ill-mannered, ill-dressed vulgarians moving en masse from one garish spectacle to another. The general ambience was something like that of a frat party … not just any frat party, but one held at the fraternity house having the lowest cumulative GPA on campus, at the campus of a college notorious for accepting any slack-witted imbecile who includes a $45.00 check with his application. There was a kind of uniform in evidence: males of the species favored askew ball caps with baggy athletic clown shorts and oversized T-shirts; females paired stretch micro dresses with stiletto heels … all had used the same mason’s trowel to apply pounds of pancake makeup. It was like a full-scale audition for “Hot Chicks with Douche Bags,” though very few hot chicks were in evidence … if only someone had told these poor creatures that a two inch long skirt is not for everyone. The din of hoots and hollers was unbearable. But wait! We had yet to enter the casino.

After 2 am, the casinos were still packed. Everyone was still “humping the American dream” as HST said, though I wished they looked like caricatures of used car salesmdn from Dallas. There was nothing so tasteful in evidence.

The thing is, everything is so cheap and trashy, not least of all the people themselves.

The appeal of gambling is lost on me.

The Flamingo then

We are staying at the Flamingo and our burlesque show is said to be “the steamiest show on the strip.” I cannot get excited about the prospect: “The show provides a high energy performance with the use of outrageous props such as bathtubs, guitars, lollipops, and feather boas.” I’m struggling to understand the quality of mind that finds a bathtub “outrageous.” These props are the most pedestrian ones imaginable, but probably suitable for the debased minds that wander into the show. Debbie Reynolds in a silver afro wig singing Sergeant Pepper’s is beginning to sound mighty appealing by comparison.

The Flamingo now

Elevator 1: On my way down to the mall-like lobby to find coffee. Trapped with a group of Ukrainian tourists, apparently minor functionaries in the Mafia. Most were grumbling good naturedly about having “lost everything” with more than a little ill-advised pride (“learn to enjoy losing”). But one had hit it big at the roulette table playing the number 28. Clearly he was destined for bigger things than his associates. He was wearing those tight high-waisted jeans popular among men involved in east European organized crime.

Elevator 2: A man makes a general comment to the other occupants of the elevator : “Another day in paradise.” There was no hint of irony in his voice, but he was so happy to be hemorrhaging his annual savings and his smile was so sweet and sincere that I couldn’t bring myself to punch him. The other occupant wished him well as he exited the elevator, then turned his attention to my mustache. It is a pretty Vegas-worthy growth and tends to attract uncomfortable attention from other men in elevators. There was the college baseball player from North Dakota who all but proposed marriage to me. But I digress.

Tourists at the strip hotels fall into two camps: foreigners and xenophobic American bigots. Every time the former communicate in something other than good old uh-MERK-in, the latter roll their eyes as if to say, “who let these fuckin’ greasers in.” The foreigners are at least as susceptible to the American Dream as the Americans themselves, if not more so, given the fact that they traveled further to find it.

The Flamingo pool

The pool pairs terrible insipid pop music at high volume with overpriced drinks. More poor fashion sense, though it’s nice to see that some women actually do wear high heels with their bikinis. Men past a certain age display what David Foster Wallace so aptly described as “rat snout tits.”* We leave disappointed when it becomes clear that the promised (and much anticipated on our part) booty shaking contest is not going to happen. Perhaps not enough volunteers signed up, but this seems unlikely, as many young women were practicing desultorily.

If it's in stock...

Still unable to find a tin ape that shakes dice or a plastic zippo with a roulette wheel embedded in it. That these were $7.50 and $6.95 respectively fills me with anxiety about what these trinkets would cost over 40 years later. And why is trash from 40 years ago charming in a kitschy way while trash from today is just trash? And don’t get me started on why slot machines no longer have a heavy lever to pull. We were fit back then, by God. Now a push button is all we can muster. Ah, nation in decline.

Bonanza gift shop

Have secured a small Las Vegas snow globe, lots of postcards, and a couple books of photographs of old Las Vegas. So far, the best signage is downtown and on the way there. It’s no less vulgar than the strip, just older. The area is gritty, but a locals bar called Dino’s lounge redeems it entirely. Two drinks for $4.50.


The last neighborhood bar in Las Vegas

We will head downtown to Fremont street on the way out of town, but my basic response to the city in the context of HST’s famous book is pretty much set: The essential character of the American Dream is nightmarish. Excess and the myth of easy money mark everything to an appalling degree. In that respect, Vegas is just like anyplace else, only more so.

Heart Attack Grill

Looking for Freak Power in the Rockies

The evidence of Thompson’s close run for sheriff of Pitkin County Colorado in 1970 is still in evidence in Aspen. The bar at the Hotel Jerome and The Woody Creek Tavern still hang the poster Tom Benton* designed for Thompson’s run for sheriff; but that, in its way, is just capitalizing on Thompson’s name to sell a few more cocktails.

Thomas W. Benton's HST for Sheriff Poster

I was at a party a few miles up in Lenado, just past where Thompson used to live.

The Road to Lenado

It was a reunion for a group who lived and worked up at a logging camp in the seventies. They would have been part of that Aspen freak contingent. Everyone remembered Thompson, but memories of that election were vague at best.

It’s pretty clear that the greedheads and limousine-liberals depicted in Thompson’s essay have pretty much won the day. The developers have been good at keeping all the development from looking too ugly. On the one hand, that four lane highway Thompson mentions never did barrel straight through the center of Aspen. In the right season when the weather is fine, you will still be treated to the most terrifyingly beautiful scenery imaginable as you creep over Independence Pass. (A long time Aspen/Lenado resident gave me the sage advice, "always steer into the mountain, not the cliff”).

Independence Pass

It’s not clear how local the local freaks ever really were. Thompson offers a concise description of a scene that has occurred again and again in various geographic locales:

The pattern never varies; a low-rent area suddenly blooms new and loose and human—and then fashionable, which attracts the press and the cops at about the same time. Cop problems attract more publicity, which then attracts fad-salesman and hustlers—which means money, and that attracts junkies and jack-rollers. Their bad action causes publicity and—for some perverse reason—an influx of bored, upward mobile types who dig the menace of “white ghetto” life and whose expense-account tastes drive local rents and street prices out of reach of the original settlers … who are forced, once again, to move on.1

During happy hour at the Jerome Tavern (sorry, that’s now called the J-Bar), Jim’s friend Kyu said that Aspen was a pretty hip place to be back in the day, but it has grown pretentious and insufferable. I’m inclined to agree. But both Jim and Kyu had lived up at Lenado even then because Aspen was already well out of reach of the average freak doing menial labor.

And what about the police Thompson wanted to rein in? My first exposure to the police in Aspen was when we turned around in a side street off main. There were three Toyota Highlander SUVs with local law enforcement markings. The vehicles were hybrids, of course. “Ecology” is an important niche market. Then later at the Woody Creek Tavern, a young woman balked at being asked to show ID: “I’ve been drinking here since I was sixteen!” Well, the ownership had apparently changed, according to the bartender, and besides, “the cops …” he left an ominous silence. The cops, indeed. To give them their due, it might just be that they enjoy roughly searching a couple of drunken teen sluts on a slow Saturday night. But who doesn’t. No, they don’t seem to have remained the overtly menacing force they once were. One can even imagine them maintaining a fleet of bicycles as HST’s platform originally suggested they do. The current Pitkin County Sheriff is named DiSalvo. A DiSalvo for Sheriff sticker on the Woody Creek Tavern back bar says he wants to legalize pot. Now that most of the freaks have gone straight, that too would be a valuable commodity to bring into the legal market. Many an ex-freak still likes to smoke a big reefer after a hard day of working for the man.

Well, most of the ex-heads I met seemed to have survived with a good deal of idealism intact. But overall, the freaks got subsumed into the larger market. Everything can and will be commodified, so now, that small and promising pocket of resistance is just one very small component of the GDP. And the former site of the Elks Club where Thompson and his followers called last minute freak voters and awaited the election results is now … wait for it … a Prada store!

Prada Store

Let’s hear it for the one percent … Aspen über alles.

Eat the 1%

1 From the essay “Freak Power in the Rockies” in HST’s The Great Shark Hunt*

Why Didn’t I Think of That?

I had just dipped into a collection of Paris Review interviews with writers* when I came across this gem in the introduction to the interview with P.G. Wodehouse:

“All of which is by way of saying that Wodehouse, who lived four months past his ninety-third birthday, had discovered his own secret of long life: he simply ignored what was worrisome, bothersome, or confusing in the world around him.”

Brilliant! Why didn’t I think of that?

Hear the Wind Sing

I lied. In Hear the Wind Sing,* his first novel, Murakami cleverly predicts his own fate at the hand of his most ignorant critics. He includes a fictional author named Derek Heartfield who was a contemporary of Hemingway and Fitzgerald but is now (1979) largely forgotten, in part because he dabbled in speculative fiction rather than writing “literature.” Hear the Wind Sing begins and ends with biographical information on Derek Heartfield. And from pages 101 to 104 there is a brief synopsis of a typical Heartfield story. Heartfield is described as having a difficult style, impossible stories, and infantile themes; yet the narrator claims “I’ve learned a lot about writing from Derek Heartfield. Perhaps almost everything.”

Of course Murakami went on to include significant elements of speculative fiction within his own writing. And some critics have deprecated his stories, themes, and even style. The style is not difficult, but it is highly structured. In some cases, the pattern seems to be the most important element, certainly more important than plot. Indeed, Murakami is often criticized for the thinness or even absence of his plots. Nothing really happens. Especially in Hear the Wind Sing.

And I think that’s why I like Murakami so much. Because nothing does really happen. In life, I mean. We read. We listen to music. We prepare tasty meals and clean up after ourselves (sometimes). We enjoy a cold beer and some salted nuts.

empty civil rye pale ale glass

Nothing really happens. People are born and they die. They contract diseases. They meet and they part. They wait for something to happen. But it never really does. And maybe at the very end, we realize that all the time we have been waiting for something to happen, it has been happening. We just never noticed.

But if we are good readers and good people, we can learn from Murakami, learn to be in every moment. We can learn to make that sandwich, to eat it, and even to wash the plate and the mayonnaise knife. That sandwich is what’s happening. And so are we. And that’s enough. It really is.

So it’s true that the narrator in Hear the Wind Sing just wanders aimlessly. He meets a girl who eventually disappears. He remembers past loves and drinks beer with the Rat at J’s bar. He eats french fries. He listens to some music. He remembers reading the works of Derek Heartfield.

French Fries from Essie's Original Hot Dogs in Pittsburg

Listen. This is what happens in a story by Heartfield in a collection called The Wells of Mars.

The Martians have disappeared and have left behind deep wells, only these wells and no other trace of civilization. The Earthlings try to explore the wells. The explorers can be divided into two categories: some go down tethered so as not to get lost, and can thus not go far enough to discover anything; others go down untethered and never return.

Among the latter is a boy, “a young space vagabond” who is “tired of the vastness of space” and simply wants to die. But as he travels through the various passages in the well, he becomes more lighthearted and filled with positive energy. He loses track of time. He finally emerges from a different well, connected to the one he originally descended. He notices a change in the sun, which now looks as if it’s setting.

He hears the voice of the wind, which alerts him to the fact that the sun will explode in 250,000 years. The boy is startled and asks how this happens. It’s just old … a fact of life … everything and everyone dies … “Not a thing you or I can do.” Just the same, the boy wonders how such a thing could have happened so suddenly. But it turns out he had wandered through the wells for 15 billion years.

Now this voice says at one point that it is the wind, but that the boy might think of it as a Martian. The voice concedes that it is not even a voice at all, but that it is planting “hints” in the mind of the boy. So the voice represents the “Martians” who constructed these inscrutable wells. “[T]he wells were fashioned with consummate skill” yet “dug to avoid hitting any water veins.” The boy has wandered aimlessly through these wells.

The Martian/wind “says” to the boy: “we are wanderers through time—from the birth of the universe to its death. For us there is neither birth or death. The winds we are.”

The boy is left with a question: “Have you learned anything?” The response of the wind to this is laughter. And then silence. So the boy takes a gun from his pocket and shoots himself in the head.

Pointless wandering. Futility. The end.

But was it really pointless? The boy has forgotten the feeling of lightness and the “wondrous energy.” That was when he was actually in the well, untethered and in the eternal moment.

It turns out that the narrator and Murakami did learn a lot from Derek Heartfield, even though he didn’t even exist.

Tofurky Bahn Mi

And you know, that sandwich is really really good. Put everything you have into making it and eating it and even washing the plate. It may be all we have, but it’s worth it.

Did I Mention, I Read Too Many Books at Once?

I guess I’d rather be reading than writing about it. I remember reading in a book by Larry McMurtry (either Books: A Memoir* or Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen* if I recollect correctly) a statement to the effect that as he gets older, he is more keenly aware that the time he has left to read books is growing more limited. And time spent writing books takes away from time spent reading them. I get it. So every time I see my category “What I’m Reading,” I think I really ought to do a post. And then I just keep on reading whatever it is that I’m reading.

So I was fairly well through The Scent of New-Mown Hay* (of the mutant mushroom women mentioned in a previous post), when I started reading other novels as well. The mushroom women were a little bit of a let down. Some lurid covers (mine is a chaste yellow hardbound library book) lead one to expect firm-gluted amazons spanking spectacled solicitors … alas. It’s a typical early cold war setup, but in a twist, the human responsible for these weird mutations is a former Nazi, not a commie. The writing is not great. I still need to read the last 30 pages.

the scent of new mown hay

But I started Titus Groan,* the first book in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy. This writing is very good indeed. It’s very poetic in places and has a kind of baroque feel overall. It seems like some weird late-nineteenth century book, but it’s really from the mid-twentieth century (sort of like the drawings of Edward Gorey seem Victorian, though they’re not). And Peake was an artist, too. The old Ballantine paperback I’m reading is illustrated by him. The characters are strangely broken down eccentrics, if not outright monsters (I’m thinking of the chef Swelter). Strange character names, of which I’m a big fan,* are the norm (Prunesquallor, Sourdust, Lord Sepulchrave, and Nannie Slagg). All the characters seem tormented, as if they suffer from chronic anal boils … this aspect of the novel, and some of the writing, reminds me of the early novels of Samuel Beckett. With all of this to recommend it, I cracked another book.


I couldn’t resist Hear the Wind Sing,* Murakami’s first novel. It has been sitting on my desk since I got it, tempting me. I gave in. Murakami doesn’t like his first novels so much. And admittedly this one is a bit thinner in every respect. But it’s still Murakami and it’s still great. The book introduces the character the Rat, who appears in A Wild Sheep Chase* (my copy is missing … did I lend it to someone?). The novel is narrated by Murakami’s usual drifting first-person narrator. The music and pop culture and dissatisfaction with reigning social conventions are already there. But so far, there is no real fantastic element, as there is in much of his work (I am about halfway through).

And speaking of the fantastic, I have just started Michael Saler’s As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality,* a study of how works of fantastic literature came to be the dominant books to readers (but not academics). I got it based on a review by a former professor, Tom Shippey. I won’t say anymore about it, because I just started and because Shippey’s review is such a good one. So just read that.

Babylon Babies

I’m almost finished reading Babylon Babies* by Maurice Dantec, a crazy Frenchman who emigrated to Quebec. I came across his name in a recent book of letters exchanged between Bernard-Henri Levy and Michel Houellebecq.* (I’m a big Houellebecq fan). I was intrigued. I got the Semiotext(e) edition from the library rather than the stupid movie tie-in edition.* I was further intrigued by this copy from the back cover:

“A schizophrenic and the possible carrier of a new artificial virus, Marie is bearing a mutant embryo created by an American cult, the Cosmic Church of the New Resurrection. They dream of producing a genetically modified messiah, which will end all human life as we know it.”

I was a little disappointed that the “genetically modified messiah” was not a Monsanto product.

It’s a bizarre book. Maybe it’s the translation, but the language comes off as wooden in places and there are lots of warped cliches like, “They brought him tea, biscuits, Russian bread, blueberry jam, and he pounced on it as if his life were at stake.” I kept waiting for the next installment in this vein, something like ‘he devoured the omelette like a mountain lion raping a double stack of blueberry pancakes.’ But some of the weird language became endearing. And his use of the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze* was more interesting to me than Deleuze himself.

The novel tracks Toorop, a Bosnian soldier of fortune as he works for a shady group including a Russian general and the Siberian mafia, agreeing to transport and protect Marie Zorn, who has been impregnated with a pair of clones. She is schizophrenic and carries a new virus. Some of the minor characters are pretty interesting, especially the group of hackers in Montreal. (Favorite character name, a hacker called Commodore 64. I would have been called Vic 20 … 5 K of RAM was more than enough for my family, thank you very much). I’ll end this post now, then finish the book so as not to spoil it. I will say it took me about 100 pages to get into it. Overall, it’s been a pretty interesting read.

But I have to finish it and move on … to another weird sf novel i stumbled upon. Reading an old publication of the Penguin Collectors Society, I found this intriguing tidbit: “murderous mutant mushroom-women.” Oh Lord … The book is A Scent of New-Mown Hay* by John Blackburn. Murderous mutant mushroom-women sound almost better than the genetically modified messiah. They should have a battle for pre-eminence like that scene in The Ruling Class* between Peter O’Toole’s Christ and the Electric Messiah. So put that in your galvanized pressure cooker and … er … cook it, I suppose.

I Read Too Many Books at Once

I’m a little apprehensive about these “what I’ve been reading” posts. I love books and I read a lot, but the truth is, in some ways, I’m not the best reader. I read too many books at once and invariably abandon some, only to return to them years later. So any single snapshot of the books I am currently reading is accurate only in the strictest sense. I’m easily tempted. In the long list of the books I am working through, I am probably only actively reading say three on any given day.

I was reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years,* which is a fascinating study of how debt and fairly elaborate credit systems have almost always been the norm.


Money was actually a later invention. Barter, at least as it’s treated in economics textbooks, is all but a fiction, historically. In fact Graeber basically paints economics itself as a completely bogus field. Having pursued a degree in it before turning to literature, I was oddly cheered. I wasted four years, but so did Alan Greenspan. I’m looking forward to the sections of the book arguing that widespread debt amnesty must come every once in a while or there is open revolt and the destruction of all records of debt. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, Citi Bank.

Then Jake leant me a copy of The Tender Bar* by J. R. Moehringer, a memoir about a boy whose male role models come from the main bar in Manhasset, Long Island where he grew up. The book will be a part of The Civil Life Library when I return it. Jake thought I would enjoy it, and indeed I do. My wife is reading it now too. It’s funny and very readable. It’s also nicely structured, something I always look for in a book (pattern, symmetry, etc.). But most of all, I appreciate the way that Moehringer captures so eloquently in spots how the bar is, for many of us, no less than a scared space. The right kind of bar provides solace at every stage in life and suits every occasion, comic, tragic, or banal. There is something of the sacrament in the first drink one consumes upon entering the bar. Oh, and every drink thereafter. Amen.

cbgb lomo

I have also been reading Horst Dornbusch on Bavarian Helles,* a light, delicate, wonderfully refreshing beer I hoped to brew. Instead I brewed what promises to be a misshapen monster of a lager. My light delicate beer looks as if it will be close to 9% alcohol. Drink up! Clearly, I should leave brewing beer to people who know what the hell they’re doing.

I have also been reading Evelyn Waugh’s When the Going Was Good.* I kind of love Waugh, even when he’s being an ass. The book collects what he deemed his best travel writing. Whether in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) during a revolt or a coronation or deep in the Brazilian Amazon, rest assured, the gin flows freely. One of the essays contains what I think is among the most gorgeous descriptions of a drink ever composed:

I told him that I had had a late night, drinking after the ball with some charming Norwegians, and felt a little shaken. He then made me this drink, which I commend to anyone in need of a wholesome and easily accessible pick-me-up. He took a large tablet of beet sugar (an equivalent quantity of ordinary lump sugar does equally well) and soaked it in Angostura bitters and then rolled it in Cayenne pepper. This he put into a large glass which he filled up with champagne. The excellences of this drink defy description. The sugar and Angostura enrich the wine and take away that slight acidity which renders even the best champagne slightly repugnant in the early morning. Each bubble as it rises to the surface carries with it a red grain of pepper, so that as one drinks one’s appetite is at once stimulated and gratified, heat and cold, fire and liquid, contending on one’s palate and alternating in the mastery of one’s sensations. I sipped this almost unendurably desirable drink … (p. 59).

hangover drink

What more can one say?

Well, I’ve also been working through The Exegesis* of Philip K. Dick, About Writing* by Samuel R. Delany, a great collection of essays by Geoff Dyer called Otherwise Known as the Human Condition,* E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful,* Gershom Scholem’s memoir of his friendship with Walter Benjamin,* an old Penguin Classics copy of Balzac’s Old Goriot,* and The Waste Books* by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (brilliant little gems, these). I should probably do entries on all of these books at some point.

Oh, my parents gave me a copy of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84* for Christmas. It has a beautiful cover designed by Chip Kidd.

iq84 front

iq84 spine

iq84 back

Stay tuned.