A Working Bricklayer’s Whistle-Bit Wonder at a Going-Wrong America
Sans génie: a French phrase meaning without genius, but with the suggestion of movement, of going or having gone about one’s life or tasks in such condition.
Whistle-bit: term used by construction workers, usually as a warning, to describe the conundrum of reaching the end of the day without time enough left to properly finish a job already started that leaving undone until tomorrow would create a pure fiasco. The worker must choose between either betraying his craft and doing the job half-assed, possibly leaving a dangerous situation until morning, or summoning the will to do the job with integrity in the face of co-worker and management irritation. Getting whistle-bit is sometimes caused by undertaking more than was realistic or by not paying attention to the time; more often, though, it is caused by having spent part of the day fucking the dog — another construction-worker term, meaning to occupy oneself with noise and motion that accomplishes nothing useful.
“She spoke of evenings in the country making popcorn on the porch. Once this would have gladdened my heart but because her heart was not glad when she said it I knew there was nothing in it but the idea of what one should do…. Her great dark eyes surveyed me with emptiness and a kind of chagrin that reached back generations and generations in her blood from not having done what was crying to be done.”
On the Road,original scroll manuscript, 1951
“In the light, the earth remains our first and our last love. Our brothers are breathing under the same sky as we; justice is a living thing. Now is born that strange joy which helps one live and die and which we shall never again postpone to a later time.”
The Rebel, 1951
“Dans la lumière, le monde reste notre premier et dernier amour. Nos frères respirent sous le même ciel que nous, la justice est vivante. Alors naît la joie étrange qui nous aide à vivre et à mourir et que nous refuserons désormais de renvoyer à plus tard.”
Chapter One: Noon O’clock Stupid
Chapter Two: Save the Lemmings
Chapter Three: Asshole Prevention
Chapter Four: The Silent Revolution
Chapter Five: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Federal Reserve
Chapter Six: What to Wear to the Apocalypse
Chapter Seven: Please Rape and Pillage Responsibly
Appendix: Rules for Understanding a World Nothing Like You’re Told It Is
1. The Rule of Something Else
2. The Rule Governing the Distribution of Personality Types
3. The Kindnesses of Mad-Dog Killers
4. The Rule of Quackery
5. The Fallacies of Analogies
6. The Fourth Law of Thermodynamics
7. Forgiving God
Noon O’clock Stupid
Long ago, 1976, Toledo, Ohio, March, high school’s end, I received an alternate’s appointment to the United States Military Academy, West Point, but didn’t go, went West instead, went up into Colorado mountains and met Bob Getz a couple years my elder, a sawed-off Vonnegut, same Indiana stock as old Kurt, but without war or death or any of that great stuff you’re a sick fuck if you choose, and, 1979, strangers into a western town, Getz and I, like Heckle and Jeckle, set out to be writers in the manner of the Lost Generation, the Beats, the Dadaists, anything along those lines, whatever might show itself handy, but nothing did. There were no honest words to write, no true sentences, none that should be written, that needed to be written, not once they were actually down on paper.
This was disconcerting to learn, to a degree, but like for criminals, young men back then who thought to make literary claims, the actual committing of crimes, the putting of words on paper, seemed rather beside the point. We were writers just like criminals, certain kinds of criminals, as an excuse for our lives. And having learned that, maybe we should have gone back home then, packed it in, sucked it up, gone bourgeois, but we didn’t. We would be writers all right, gifted writers even, important writers, but we wouldn’t write. We wouldn’t even pretend to write. This was to be our aesthetic, revolutionary in its way, and though many high plains nights on the summer front porch of the dilapidated downtown house we shared we long talked out the art of not writing, it was the silences, the long, breathtaking silences, that were — I tell you now — genius.
I was tall and angry — discontented, unconsenting, deprecatory. Getz was short and something else. He had a head distinctly shaped, if you drew him as a caricature, like a cartoon anvil. He had curly hair the color of a wilted tangerine. He had one brown eye that nerves, at times, turned gray. He had one gray eye that similarly turned blue. He was perfectly ambidextrous, could touch type at a hundred words a minute, had been his Catholic high school’s student body president, wrestling team captain, married at nineteen, for nine months, to a fuckmonster hottie. Like Peter-Peter-Her-Pumpkin-Eater, he kept her not so well in a neat-as-a-pin Indiana shack and supported them both by hauling trash in a rust-bucket pickup with plywood sides six feet high. Then all that went officially bust. A judge dissolved the marriage with a bang of his gavel. His truck was broken down, not a word had he written. He had an octopus of guilt growing inside him as he reclined on the courthouse lawn with brown-bagging-it friends drinking booze, one of whom loaned him a ’62 Chevy station wagon which he drove fifteen hundred miles to Clovis, New Mexico to join “The Harvest,” the army of combines that every year cut a three hundred mile swath of Great Plains wheat from the Rio Grande to Canada. And maybe that’s all you need to know about Getz at nineteen, or America back then, 1970-something, that there was enough romance in the idea for a white boy to do it. Outside Bowbells, North Dakota, on the narrow, ground-level porch of a cheap motel twelve miles from the Canadian border, Getz drank his coffee in the predawn, switched to beer by sun-up. It was a Sunday. His roommate, a South Dakotan late-comer to the harvest, Lanky Bones Jones, asked Getz about doing it again next year, the whole thing. He asked if he needed a passport to get into New Mexico? Getz put that in his journal, got a bachelor’s degree in psychology, IUPUI, Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, lived for a time in a Denver wino’s residential hotel and looked out on sad streets from a small table beneath a bare bulb, journal opened, words etched, right handed and left handed, in the same tight, tiny, anal, cuneiform script. This is all true. It is also true that he thought that the beats and hippies and so on had transformed what sanity was and that he himself was ordinary, sane. He had plans to write stories for Readers’ Digest, The Saturday Evening Post and Esquire. He didn’t believe in genius, not the kind I was talking about. It was, for him, all about craft, the correcting of craft. Genius he didn’t think w.as available to him, or to me, or to anyone like us, not anymore, but I was there in the high plains house and watched him, Bob Getz, pace in penny loafers the worn wood floors of the empty rooms echoing to the clicks of his Thom Mcan heels. I watched him suck down cigarettes one two three, each held in his hand cupped as if each long drag were furtive and to be his disgusted, savored last. I watched him drink wine, Rhine wine Almendin, as he smoked and paced, glass and flagon in one hand, cigarette in the other, and he never spilled a drop, never dropped an ash. He wore jeans he might have ironed. His shirts, spotless and white, hung loose on him. To buy shirts that fit he would have had to shop in the boys department, and he couldn’t do that. There was a lot Getz couldn’t do. He couldn’t go without bathing, not a day, maybe not twelve hours. He couldn’t not have stamps and paper and pen neatly at the ready, just in case. He couldn’t not have clocks set to the proper time, nor not read the paper, nor not care about the world, nor not keep cut the few blades of grass on our hardpan lawn with a rusty push mower he tried so hard to love. And he couldn’t not tell the truth, not to himself, not to me, not to his occasional gal Melody, not to anyone, and this made stuff inside him burn like a smoldering tire fire. Could he have invented himself, or repaired himself, gotten into the wiring of his brain with needle-nose pliers and soldering kit and gone to work, he’d have, really, disrepaired himself, crossed a couple of wires, made it so he could have been an accountant like his older brother C. J., living hip in San Francisco, about to take a transfer to New York City, or his oldest brother Tom, a working government biologist in the rural Midwest. Getz talked of them like old Kurt talked of his older brother Bernard, the scientist who invented cloud seeding. But Getz wasn’t his brothers. He didn’t have it in him to be useful to the mad old world, and this burned, and in a good mood, an occasional moment of self love, he liked to reference Orr, the novel Catch 22′s real hero. Orr was a bomber pilot who planned to get shot down over the Mediterranean so he could, in a lifeboat, row away from the war, maybe to Switzerland. Throughout most of the book, Orr was presented as a loon, eager to fly missions so as to practice getting shot down, which he was, many times, though rescued each time. Until the last. When his plan worked, and he rowed away from the war. Getz made the reference often enough that, when we were in mixed company, that is among folks trying to usefully make their way in the world, he could communicate it to me with the shorthand of a rowing motion. But he was Midwestern work ethic down in his every bone, and the only way he could get a rubber life raft of his own was to have it in a manner his mother could tell her garden club, and that was literary, and that’s the best-ever definition of what makes a writer, the genuine real-deal writer, a man able to neither reconcile the opposing pulls of his soul nor to give himself over to either, able to neither row off like Orr nor to live useful to the rot of society, Indiana decency intact, like his brothers. Daily, Getz went for the study with the broken sliding pocket doors. On a formica-topped kitchen table, we had his plastic blue Olivetti typewriter portable, a high-school present from his grandmother in whom he had confided, once, that in his hypothetical heart he might be the next Steinbeck, and at it he worked with the rigor and honesty of a young Hemingway, true words only, leave off in the middle of a sentence so as to pick up tomorrow in midstream. Each day’s end, though, Getz had out-Hemingwayed Hemingway. Instead of paring down the flow of mind to five hundred words, Getz got it to zero.
Bob Getz, 1980, Fort Collins, Colorado, 512 Meldrum Street (now a bank parking lot) suffered maybe our generation’s greatest outpouring of genius. There ought be a plaque.
His first works fine enough to send to editors were stories with nearly every word overstruck with virgules, the forward slash, and those that weren’t, those that made it through the typewriter intact, were lined though with red pen. But editors didn’t get it. They thought of it as a stunt, insulte juvénile. They didn’t know that he had written each word sincere, his best, but against them had refined his sensibility, his shit detector. His writing process, his unwriting process, was to stare at a word, a phrase, a line, until he could see through to its falseness, its cloying qualities. Then, and only then, he’d strike it out. Words that meant other than what they were, words that were code, were referential as if passwords, an in to a cultural clique — gone. Words behind which he could see the mechanical wheels of the writer at his confabulating work — gone. “Art must be non-transparent,” he’d say and pace and sip at his Kahlua-and-creams — for his ulcers. He went from a five-five growing boy, a hairy chested hundred and forty pounds, to five-four, a hundred and twenty chain smoking pounds, Merit Ultra Lights. Told by friends that he had to eat, he made his lips go fish and made quick sucks at spots in the air. “Yum,” he’d say. “There’re vitamins floating about.” This was a joke, a sad joke, gallows humor even, but maybe it was this idea that one could live on air, find sustenance in nothing, that led to his breakthrough. Into the Olivetti he put sheets of twenty-bond cotton Southworth paper and, as usual, typed his name and address in the upper left corner, the story’s title in the middle, the page number upper right. He’d crank the carriage return seven times to the first line, but instead of typing words that would later sour on him, he stared at the blank line until he was confident that any word at all would be false. Zing. He’d hit the return to the next line and take the same, intense care with every word he wasn’t writing. Zing. He was imprinting on the paper — via willed, desperate vibes, like sucking vitamins from the air — something. Slowly the pages stacked up neatly to the left of the typewriter. Their newness had been rolled out of them through handling and their trip through the rough mechanics of a cheap machine. And something else, too, something like watching John Cage compose his four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, which I quite certain took him days, long days, if not weeks, like Robert Rauschenberg’s white-on-white paintings. I sneaked look-sees at Getz’s twenty-six double-spaced blank pica lines beneath the name, address, title and page number of each sheet, and if I gave myself over to it, allowed myself to be mesmerized, I saw absolutely what Hemingway was talking about in his famous quote about writing on the principle of the iceberg, that if the writer could put seven-eighths of what he knew below the surface, his story was strengthened. Getz got the whole of his iceberg below the surface. His clean pages were a still sea your eyes glided over with that emotion, that beneath the glassy reflection of a white sky was the marine green of everything you feared about truth. Unlike his earlier efforts, the strike-through stories, this I didn’t have to tell him how good it was. He knew. He was shooting his wad and knew it and done, he sent it to The Atlantic Monthly, then the Club 54 of places for short fiction in America. From C. Michael Curtis, shortly to become the chief fiction editor, Getz got back a hand-written note. This is true. Curtis wrote that rarely, never, had he been so moved, so cast deep in thought, by an unsolicited submission, and he thanked Robert Ely Getz for sending it, but the magazine would have to decline.
Like Einstein at twenty-six, or Newton at twenty-three, or Rimbaud at nineteen, Bob Getz, twenty-four years old, had shot his wad and what he had for it was a note from C. Michael Curtis that didn’t even say, as all rejection slips said, that the editor(s) wished the writer best of luck placing the work elsewhere.
Maybe Getz should have persisted. Maybe he could have pulled it off, eventually, but it wasn’t a sure thing, or even a likely thing. Odds were that he’d long go on earning his living, part of mine too, working in a bank, as a teller in the commercial window, and that wasn’t gonna get it as the losing end of a long-shot bet made with his only life, one bequeathed to him by Carl and Mary of Indianapolis, Indiana, and what right had he to say they’d done it wrong, to reproach their lives with his. When we’d made plans for the rat house on the plains, we made rules, no television, no microwave, no frozen dinners, no corporate kowtowing of any kind, no phones. Money was fuck-you money only. But a month or two in, I came home and on the living room floor was a red princess phone plugged into the wall. “What’s that!” I hollered at Getz. “My parents are old and might die and I want them to know that one or the other might be able to tell me by means other than the Pony Express.” He said that and six or eight or ten months later went into his Spartan warrior’s bedroom and rolled up his foam rubber camping mattress, tied it up neatly, put it in the closet and bought a bed, one with box springs, a frame, a headboard, a queen-sized bed for which he bought a black-and-gold bedspread and made it every morning, neat as a pin. He bought a nightstand for his little lamp and windup clock. He bought a dresser for the neat piles of his junior-sized clothes. He did these things and got his appetite back, grew an inch, made friends with normal people, people with televisions and late-model cars, cars with insurance and seat belts and regularly scheduled maintenance. He said to me, “It’s no use, Badyna, I’m sane.”
He said it like James G. Blaine said to accusations that he hobnobbed too much with plutocrats, “But I like rich people.” Jamed G. Blaine, “Continental liar from the State of Maine,” as he was called in the 1884 presidential election. “But I like rich people,” Blaine truthfully said, the line that cost him the election, the presidency.
“But I’m sane,” Getz said.
I said, “Your copy of Hemingway short stories has most of the words crossed out. You crossed out your own notes in the margins. Our phone book’s white pages have half the names crossed out.”
Getz shook his head like it wasn’t true, though smiled while doing so. He said he was making tea, Celestial Seasonings, with hibiscus. Did I want some? “Sure,” I said, and he went, night school, Colorado State University, got a second bachelor’s degree, this one in journalism, became a reporter, columnist, editor, started a communications company — a successful one, lucrative contracts with Hewlett Packard, and so on. He became a husband, father, grandfather. He became, I have reason to suspect, a Christian.
This is true.
I look back and see that Getz was a poster boy for our generation. His story is the story we all tell. Even people who didn’t live the arc of life that Bob Getz did, they pretend to. They pretend at least to be as innately decent and honorable, as thoughtful and disciplined, to have made the transition from idealism to success with all virtues intact.
I write this late at night and would like to call him up, leave the kitchen table, fold close my trusty new dense-as-lead laptop, take a Scotch neat to the front porch, “Are there any true sentences, yet?” There’s no answer to a question like that, but between friends, good friends, Heckle and Jeckle type friends, conversations aren’t about the answers at all. It’s about setting out. From this point, you and I, we’re setting out again and again. “Are there any true sentences, yet?” It was never about that, not for us, not for Hemingway, not for America, and I’d like tonight to talk to old Getz for that feeling, that the whole of our histories were only a climb up the ladder to this springboard, but something happened. Five or six years ago, he stopped answering my emails and cut short two phone calls with “Let me call you right back” and never did and soon came a box with my volumes of letters to him and, too, notebooks, effects, pictures, so on, stuff of mine that he had had two decades in safekeeping from the recklessness of my life. The box came with a cryptic note that he and his family were moving from their cul-de-sac home. No forwarding address was included.
What had happened I wasn’t sure, couldn’t pinpoint, but I could take a hint. Twenty-seven years of friendship — poof. I had and have my theories, but that kind of stuff is not for here, not the particulars of it, not here, not in fiction either. The loss, though, is.
No more are there for me long letters written late at night with a slow drink in one hand and a fine pen in the other, nor long-distance calls from dark rooms in which the only sounds, aside from our voices, were the squeak of an old rocker, the clink of ice, the crisp, subtle sizzle of match-lit cigarette smoking. It is a different country I live in now that a guy like me and a guy like Getz can no longer, from time to time, applaud the performance art of our very different lives, and this is of no importance to anyone but us — or maybe to anyone but me — except it’s the burn fueling this book.
At the end of the year Getz and I were to become writers, 1980, I pulled on my good Stetson, black corduroy with a rattlesnake band and white ostrich feather plume, made a bedroll from old army-like wool blankets, crammed my clothes, a few books, my do-funnies into my dirty orange Sears & Roebuck backpack, and on a snowy Tuesday morning in November, near the end off it, I walked out of an alien town like I’d never been there and where the houses thinned and dead stubs of wheat stalks poked through snow, before me unrolling were all the great plains extending infinite under low dark clouds lit from below by a sun rising. Maybe a romantic figure I fancied myself, thumb out, walking, back to traffic, a silhouette in swirling snow on deserted roads across the prairies of eastern Colorado and western Kansas, but more than that I thought of the big empty arc of America ahead of me, and I knew by then how it unrolled before you, how many steps there were to each mile, how many miles to each state, how many states between me and home, and I knew what it was like to be out there alone, without enough money to get warm when you needed to get warm.
You set out on life, and you thought you were gonna be Georgie Porgie, kiss all the girls, but when you were pretty much done and looking back, whether you’d kissed one or a thousand, what you remember is not the chasm between what you set out to achieve and what you did, but the heart, the heart to set out, and you wish you had it still, and the regrets that old people have is that, that they didn’t have heart enough or lost it too soon. It’s a rare man, probably a dishonest man, who can pinpoint the moment he lost it, but you knew that standing on that highway, whatever your equivalent of that highway was, that you were gonna lose the heart for this.
I left, that particular trip, for New York City, though I didn’t know it on that high plains highway. I left New York, a Bowery neighborhood like the ruins of Western Civilization, for Gillette, Wyoming and her oil fields, and I left there for Rampart Street in New Orleans and there for Seattle’s waterfront and then the Knoxville hills of Tennessee and boomtown Texas and New York again and Colorado again and Ohio a hundred times and so on, forty-seven states, ranch hand, roustabout, roughneck, coal miner, mucker on a highway road crew, tombstone engraver, short-order cook, line cook, sous chef, librarian, student, parts driver for a mechanical contractor, messenger on Wall Street, roofer, plumber’s helper, technical writer, newspaper stringer, features reporter, publisher of an alternative newspaper, laborer for a stonemason, love and death, love and death, I went, thirty times across the Mighty Mississip’, memories intacted in the museum of my mind like broken statues from a former glory, like Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” the poem that ends, “You must change your life now”: Dawn, Judy, Diane, Hanneke, Bernadette, Lindsay, Peggy, Joanna, Carol, Kathleen, so on, poems all, Ginel Paula Pearson, midnight waitress in a near-downtown cafe, Dallas, Texas, prettiest woman in the world, true, prettiest name too, delicately fragile Roman features like bird-shell bones beneath the blackest skin ever on a human, tear-drop eyes of an Audoubi princess, five children at home, shared with me a hundred straight nights a booth from which we watched the cafe’s lights bleed out into the canyon street the light at the bottom of the world. But you lose heart for that, to pick up and do even perfection again, and by and by, thirty-one years old, 1989, I became a bricklayer, back home, at the beginning, Toledo, Ohio, Local # 3.
I am fifty-two years old. I live nice on the north fork of Long Island’s eastern end, in the shingled home of a long-dead fisherman, but I am union still and every morning roll my cranky bricklayer’s body out of bed and go to work, often two hours away in New York City. In the dark I drive past new multi-million dollar homes being put up where once lived fishermen, twelve thousand square foot homes being clad in stone and brick by Guatemalan masons living ten to a trailer behind the local supermarket. Time to time, nights on my front porch watching the crabbers in their flat-bottomed boats creak across the estuary, a light shining down, nets at the ready, I find myself with a slow drink in one hand, the phone in the other, talking to one or another of my old buddies from Local # 3, Toledo, Ohio. Last I this way talked, a week or so ago, 400 of the local’s 500 members were out of work, even as their new governor, John Kasich, worked to take away the mandate that state-funded jobs use union workers. This isn’t to say they were collecting unemployment. Those benefits have, for most, long gone. They were working, a lot of them, all who could find work. They were working scab, those who could find that work, bricking up residential homes for fly-by-night contractors dissolving their companies, one after another, to escape debts and payroll. Or they were driving school buses, working at Home Depot, pulling parts in junkyards, some unproud occupation without pension contributions or medical benefits or the right to tell their bosses that they had the larger obligation to The International Brotherhood of Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen, to those who had come before and to those to come after, to their proud trade, to do their jobs safely and properly and for a wage that builds communities and cities and states and a country and decency. They were disposable now and needed the job and were proud yet somewhere inside, and this cocktail had funny, Stockholm-syndrome effects on a psychology. It put a guy in the mindset of trailer trash, gun angry with a fake flag-waving pride in their new-found ignorance. I go to work every day like an athletic event, but it’s getting hard, and the finish line, it seems, is more and more a desert mirage. The deep thinkers in Washington are looking to draw a moving line for Social Security, 67 then 69, then, soon, 70. Medicare is on the table, no matter what anyone says. It’s on the butcher block. Do the math. Look in the mirror. Only an idiot trusts now in the security of his pension, even a bricklayer’s vested pension. Those “sophisticated traders” on the dumb end of the mortgage-backed-securities AAA-rated frauds might have been my guys. Was the fund damaged in the last crash? Will it be wiped out in the next? Will Washington change the laws protecting it from speculators, or will they, as they have so many times for so many others, go the other way? With so many union bricklayers cashing in their pensions early, to keep their homes, will the whole thing, for those of us still working, be on the short end of a Ponzi scheme?
It feels that way in America now, that the whole freaking thing is a Ponzi scheme. Everything is all bollixed up everywhere you look, and our Websters, our Lincolns, our LaFollettes and Roosevelts, our leaders in Washington, their mouths firmly around billionaire dick, suggest, I guess, that I bend curves, or learn computer programming, or start a catering business, or, most likely, bend over and salute.
I think not, brother. Bend this.
But I wonder, do I — do we — have the heart to set out again, to remake our country the way it was remade for us, to make of all of our histories a couple-hundred-year climb up the ladder to the springboard of now?
I’ve long had a love affair with this country, but it wasn’t with her history or white buildings or monuments or documents or even the advancements of civil liberties. None of that. My love affair was with the land herself. Somewhere in the boxes of letters Getz sent back to me, I probably have a thousand pages that could be collected as an Ode to America, and there’s not in there, I am quite confident, a single reference to a fighter jet or the flag or a founding document or a politician or general or beacon to the world or anything like any of that.
If I mention a policeman or soldier or C.I.A. creep, it’s not to say, I guarantee it, “Thank you for your service.”
But I know that I can sit in a bar anywhere in this country and no matter the politics or religion or experiences or economics of the person I’m talking to, if I’m going right and getting talking about crossing the big if of America, about the forty or fifty one-way trips of a thousand miles or more that I’ve made, about Route 85 up through the western Dakota grasslands and her butte sentinels, Route 93 south out of Lolo, Montana and across the black-forested Bitterroots, I-40 out of Flagstaff and across the Injun high desert of northern Arizona and New Mexico under a full moon magic as shit, or Route 9 across a crooked tier of New England clapboard, or any of dozens of others that I hitched, drove or bused higgledy-piggledy on raggedy hegiras, “all that raw land” that Kerouac talked of, “that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the west coast, all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it,” and if my face shows it, if my heart’s in it, there’s hardly a better line in the repertoire to get a gal’s panties wet.
Tuluca, Illinois; Denton, Iowa; Phillipsburg, Kansas; Mobridge, South Dakota; Bowman, North Dakota; Ginger, Montana; Salmon, Idaho; Walla Walla, Washington; Evanston, Wyoming; Milesburg, Pennsylvania; Valdosta, Georgia, so on forever. It’s only gotta be elsewhere, and if you have some love for these places, it’s like you’ve been to the moon, and if you can communicate this, it’s better than a Mercedes Benz, Cristal Champagne and cocaine. It’s a distinctly American thing, that the place to be is somewhere else and not on the map. I remember a trek — west or east I don’t remember — but that it was, five hundred miles of it, on Route 36 along the Kansas-Nebraska border. The two-lane road was arrow-straight and jiggling in the hundred-degree heat up and down swales and vales of endless human-grown green. Cicada heaven it was, if you had brains enough to have the windows down, and every twenty, thirty miles was a town you rolled through at idle speed, and somewhere along there I was following a yellow VW Bug with the vanity plate “Dustry,” and when she pulled into a crossroads root beer stand, I followed. She was blonde and lovely, somewhat like a hawk, that distant focus, and had her sullen son with her, fourteen and acne angry. We sat up each on separate picnic tables for a bit of the breeze moving across half of the whole wide world’s wheat beneath a blinding blue sky cantilevered far over the horizon. The root beer had in it micro-crystals of ice and you had to think civilization wasn’t all a mistake. Her father had wanted to name his first born Destry, after the the hero of the Jimmy Stewart movie, and when out she came, her mother said, “You ain’t naming my little girl no Destry.” She preferred Dusty, after the singer, Dusty Springfield. You silently take her in, the woman Dustry, her life out here, and you think “What else is there any truer?” and you have thoughts about this, and then you’re gone, out on the big land, rolling away, and it’s a little bit sad, but it’s a true thing too and better than champagne, any champagne, because it’s forever. No matter what we do to it, the land, there’s three million square miles of it. It’s there, ours and us. We are the slag heaps of our might and neglect just as we are, too, the home-dotted valleys of a tenuous perfection. But more we are the land between our poetic moments, those millions and millions of awful acres without which we’re Luxemburg, a country whose mosaic is wall-to-wall postcards, fifty or sixty of them, and nothing else.
I once had a Toledo girlfriend who heard me tell of the most beautiful place I had ever lived, the Tahosa Valley in the Colorado Rockies, and she had to go. So I said let’s go. And she bought plane tickets. And I said, Oh no, we drive. If you haven’t crossed a thousand miles of prairie, you can’t know the mountains. It’d be better, I said, to make that awful, lonely drive through dark Midwestern mysteries in November, dawn then dusk, through cold mists and winds, across a thousand miles of bare fields. Some grand, ontological enigma is answered out there. The cows know it, the ten million leeward leaning cows standing in graceless magnificence beneath a thousand miles of sky moving in agitation to make way for the dusk heralding colors that God sends to witness slaughter.
But she flew.
I drove fourteen hundred miles on prairie back roads, no map in the truck. All night through a black Nebraska downpour, two bridges out, I drove, finally, some hundred miles into the sun at my back and on the gold wheat expanses of eastern Colorado, and in what once had been a town, I stopped at a roadside liquor store for a Jack Daniels refresher and asked that I might be getting close to the new airport (replacing Stapleton International). The girl behind the counter, nubile as a county-fair squealer, but with femme fatale eyes, asked which direction I was headed. I said West. She said I’d passed it. “Back up half a mile and look for the wind sock.” I made it anyway, picked up my friend at the big new airport outside Denver, ten minutes to spare. She had a comedian’s complaints about airline travel.
The Great Plains isn’t a landscape whose soul you can cop to, like that of the Grand Canyon or the Colorado Rockies. To live lakeside or oceanside and find beauty, profundity and spiritual power takes no moral courage. But out there, on the Great Plains, the real deal, if your heart is strong enough, you can see landscape as grand and lovely and sweeping as anywhere on earth. What soul it has you have to bring.
That’s the thing. If you’re ever feeling rotten about your country, a drive across the Great Plains has to act as a restorative. There’s the natural majesty of the place, but there are its ambiguities too. You can’t drive it and not think of the Indians we annihilated to take it, nor the slaughter of the buffalo, wolves, ferrets and birds. In a North Platte diner I once sat talking to an old man who as a kid had made pocket change by shooting every wild thing he could find. The county paid so many pennies for a pair of fox ears, so many for the legs of a magpies, so on, until there were none. You can’t think it an unambiguously good thing to take a natural wonder, the American steppes, and plow it up horizon to horizon. But you have to think too of the men who pioneered out there and in a few some years remade a million square miles — ten times grander than the Hoover Dam. Yet they weren’t so much the foot soldiers of a conquering army, the vanguard of a rapacious horde, as individuals out to get a little space for themselves, a willingness to exchange solitary hardship to be a man with no master but God. I can’t but think that they put plow to the buffalo grasses not without knowing the act as both grand and terrible. But what else would you have had them do? Which wagon would you have stopped?
And in that ambiguity, acknowledged and unacknowledged and epic clear on the great plains, is a great country — or was.
But we have lost the taste for it, even the best of us have. If you ask me what changes I’ve seen in my fifty-two years, it’s this, that we have become intolerant of our own national ambiguity. We have lost the moral courage of verve, to be less than perfectly right.
It’s a common thing to see one’s own times as compromised, a diminution of a heroic past. It’s a signal characteristic of the adolescent mind. But not all generations are equal in their accomplishment, and the stopped clock of the puerile has something true to say twice in the history of a people.
1980, I — no doubt about it — made claims that it was my lousy luck to be twenty-one years old just as the hour hand of the wise swung round to noon o’clock stupid, but when I, one by one — how else could one do it? — confronted the works of the then literary establishment, the writers someways up the mountain and supposedly proper targets for vandalism, calumny and slander, my usual reaction was an angry, “Son of a bitch, the fuck got it on paper.”
And by “The fuck” I meant, respectively, in turn, Norman Mailer, who was fifty-seven years old and had got, 1978, half of America down on paper with The Executioner’s Song, or Saul Bellow, who was sixty-five, an old man wrapping up his business, and had got, 1976, the other half of America in Humbolt’s Gift, or Kurt Vonnegut, fifty-eight and a black sheep uncle, or his friend Joseph Heller, fifty-seven and fading, or William Styron fifty-five and done, or James Dickey, fifty-seven, or James Jones, fifty-nine and dead.
I look back now and see that there has been nothing as good since, nothing even close, and I say, “Holy Shit! Them were giants about in them days.” And maybe they were, maybe they weren’t, but they were, for better or worse, men anyway, real men, nothing of the schoolboy about them. Their words had heft and significance, or if not their actual words, something did, some presence between the lines. Even their suck-ass books had a verve, a natural confidence, an ability to speak directly and clearly. They did, whatever their flaws, fulfill the fundamental role of creative literature, to act as a restorative for the appetites of life.
Which wasn’t to say that I didn’t see mistakes. I did. I saw the mistakes, the shortcomings, the flailing and cheating, but they’d anyway got down on paper something fundamental, something fundamental and American and going away.
E. L. Doctrow, in 1980, was forty-nine and not going anywhere he might have, like John Updike, forty-eight, and Philip Roth, forty-seven.
Jerzy Kozinski, in 1980, was forty-seven. Ken Kesey was forty-five, as was Richard Brautigan. Tom Robbins was forty-four. Jim Harrison was forty-three. Thomas Pynchon was forty-three. Thomas McGuane, forty-one. John Irving was thirty-eight, and they weren’t quite somehow, none of them, measuring up, were a half-note diminution, and we knew it already.
They were, we could see, fixing the mistakes and flailings of the old guys, true for style as well as content, and on paper their books were better, but lost was that fundamental something. Hunting and pecking five a.m. on Getz’s plastic blue Olivetti, on mushrooms, pot and vodka gimlets nine inches tall in a souvenir pilsner glass, with a straw, I discovered that even writing to make those old-guy mistakes was to make a different mistake, a worser mistake, that of insincerity, which curiously, at its best, read as oversincerity.
But to go the other way, to write with your dick out and pissing on the rug, which I tried, Black Beauty speeders and sweet Greek wine thick like syrup, was to write the literary equivalent of a cage match, Big-Time Wrestling, punky doodle assholedness.
It was, had you asked me then, purely noon o’clock stupid.
Getz, having completely molted his pupa shell, an adult, saw it differently. He read the stuff, old and new, and if pressed to comment, he’d only say to most of it, in his drawn-out, nasally, Indiana whine, “Man, where’s that at?” Pressed further, he wouldn’t say that they weren’t great, but that one or another, Hemingway, for example, was a “sick, murderous fuck,” or that Mailer was “an egomaniacal drunk,” so on. I wish I remembered more of his three-word critiques. They were instrumental to, as in being the instrument of, his writing, his unwriting, his non-writing. He’d read somewhere that Hemingway, early in World War II, drunkenly hunting German U-boats in the Key West Gulf Stream on board his eight-hundred horsepower prize, the Pilar, would, from time to time, be known to let loose with his fifty-caliber machine gun on a school of fishies. In his iron anvil head, Getz reasoned that this murderous fuck was an inevitable outgrowth of the adventurer of the Thirties in Spain and Africa, who had to be an outgrowth of the artist of Paris in the Twenties, and Getzelided from his pages any word, phrase or sentiment that might in any way underpin a sensibility from which one might wake with a hangover and evil memories.
“And how’d that work out for ya, Getz,” I’d like to ask now, Auggie Doggie the Eighth, 2011. I’d like an answer, too, but even if I dialed Getz up, I’m quite sure he’d say, “I’ll call you right back,” and never would, and if I called back and back and back and he eventually consented to talk and, out of grace, pretended to assume the Heckle and Jeckle we’d twenty years been, it wouldn’t be as actual friends. It’d be an accounting, a two-way deposition, two criminals each deposing the other.
In the mid-nineties, Getz and his wife — whom I might have gone for, but was wandering and gave Getz her number, “Call her up” — they had taken an in-town and ramshackle bungalow and made of it what the imagination of the time could, mauve walls, polyurethane floors, a spinning loom wheel, and they had three little girls, the oldest five or six, and in one of his letters, two or three typed and thought-out pages, grammar as punctilious as a schoolhouse marm, he mentioned that they all on Sunday mornings sat on the front porch and watched the good folks of Fort Collins, Colorado, not so much a cow town anymore, walk to church, and his little girls watched the other little girls walk in shiny shoes and party dresses, and they asked their daddy where were those girls going dressed like that, and Getz said, “Church,” and his girls said they then wanted to go to church, too.
Getz didn’t write his answer, didn’t write that he’d offered another place to go in shiny shoes and party dresses, and I never pursued the subject, never brought it up, but I knew like you knew someone sneaking vodka at ten o’clock in the morning that I’d be out there not writing alone, and that was okay. I didn’t die like I was supposed to, nor go to prison, nor anywhere that would have made our story a story of our times, but Getz had to go on with his part, play out his role. History moves in waves, and the whole of a generation rides the same, big, synchronous wave of its time, and when it breaks, the mathematician and the poet, the fuckup and his brother his better, ride it down the same. Our course, our aesthetic course, our moral course, all our courses demand it, and I look now at the writers of my generation, we who have followed Mailer, Bellow, Roth, McGuane, DeLillo, and I see that we were right, Getz and I, to unwrite, to x-out every word that might have become what we’re reading now.
Jonathan Franzen is thirteen months younger than me. His picture is on the cover of Time Magazine and labeled The Great American Novelist, and maybe he is, but where in there, in all his work, is there a man, besides in the fathers of us — and they are old, myopic, doddering. His characters are maybe, as I’ve been told, familiar as homey beans, but I read them as taken straight from NPR’s Morning Edition, victims all, and not a one would I care to meet, not a conversation have, not a single place go or be — and that’s true and amazing for the literary fictional works of my generation whole. As far as I can tell it is. Jonathan Lethem has talent to burn, but for what does it burn? Where is the aesthetic, the sensibility, that is not mere commentary? Jonathan Safran Foer, with his prose, tries to decipher the secrets and conspiracies of a world that has none. To a man, the world is what it is and what it is is one thing for people with heart and another thing for people without, and if anything’s gone missing in this generation of mine it is that, that distinction. Jonathan Ames, called our generation’s Charles Bukowski, writes dirty, but teaches at Columbia University. The giant of our generation, David Foster Wallace, aimed with his writing, as far as I can tell, to redeem the weak heart in us all. I read and read the literature of my generation, and no matter how accomplished and masterful, something of it still reeks of the schoolboy. It has that earnestness, that transparentness, that self-conscious proving of smarts and wisdom and creativity, and has too that sucking for an A. That’s how it reads, don’t it?
And I could not have done better. Let me say that.
There is a scene in Bellow’s Humbolt’s Gift set in a bath house and the narrator, a kid then, memorably observes the great swinging testicles of the old immigrant men and wonders, with mixed feelings, if he will be that, and when I think of that generation, that of Bellow and Vonnegut and Styron and so on, I have to think that they did, that they got their beefalo balls, and then I think of us as fairly represented by Franzen and Wallace and so on, and no matter how brilliant our minds, we’re fifty years old and still sporting about with neat little testicles tidy in our tighty whities. We might as well yet have yellow duckies on them.
The New Yorker recently put out its “Twenty under Forty” issue — twenty writers under the age of forty who we’re to look at as up and comers. At age forty, Hemingway had written three world-class novels and was calling himself Papa. At age forty, Tolstoy had written War and Peace, Melville was years finished writing for the public, a has-been, Fitzgerald was dead, or as good as, as was Jack London, dying rich and of his abused kidneys.
Last year there was a book out, Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders. The authors were Eric Cantor, 47 years old, Paul Ryan, 40 years old, and Kevin McCarthy, 45 years old.
Something’s wrong, boys and girls. It’s hard me for to imagine being forty years old and being willing, in public, to consider yourself “a young gun,” literary or political.
My original subtitle for this book was “An Old Bricklayer’s Whistle-Bit Wonder…” My gal dissuaded me from it. “We’re not old,” she said.
“I’m fifty-two years old, thirteen-seventeenths of my three score and ten. I’m thirty-five years out in the world — that’s gotta be what old is.”
But she was right. And that’s the thing. Whatever our lives were to be about, we don’t feel we’ve done it yet. We haven’t arrived. We ought be tipping past the years of verve and confidence and into gravitas, but we’re like adolescents still, uninitiated, all judgment and no balls.
In 2002 or 2003, I drove my truck sixteen hundred miles out to an old homestead northwest of Great Falls, Montana to make a bid on building a sixty-foot observation tower out of stone. The owner of the land was a business success elsewhere, made his nut as a commodities trader in Chicago, but loved these high, coulee-riven plains his father had homesteaded at the end of the Twenties, a one-legged Finnish immigrant who never learned a hundred words of English but had made a go of his hundred and sixty acres, some of the last free land in the lower forty-eight. The trader leased his dead father’s five hundred acres to cattlemen, but kept the old small home for vacations and fancied a tower as landmark and monument, something to do with the idea that from its top you would see nothing more than what you saw from its base, only endlessness more of it. While there, I took in a small-time rodeo in Augusta, a small, small town forty empty miles further west. It’s a cluster of homes and businesses and wrecks backed to the very foot of the Montana Front Range, an impervious block uplift of the Rockies. The Great Plains end there like a carpet into a wall. There’s no road up into the mountains less you go north or south some distance. It’s a remote, end-of-the-road kind of place, even in 2003. About ten in the morning, I’m sitting on the wooden sidewalk outside a saloon having a beer and a smoke and watching the parade of folk. A kid comes up to me. He’s smooth-cheeked, nineteen years old. He’s got a crisp checked shirt on, a bolo tie, jeans you could wear at West Point. He wants to bum a cigarette. I offer a few, a beer if he wants one. He talks. He’s a calf roper, trying to make it on the circuit, but not doing so well. Still he’s cheerful, I guess. He’s from somewhere in New Mexico. I remember that. He tells me he needs to get third place or he doesn’t have money home. I say, “Good luck.” I mean it, too. I watch the calf roping that night with interest.
It’s late here at the eastern end of Long Island, New York. I’m drunk, maybe. Ask me about America, ask me what’s worth arguing for, and I’ll say that, a nineteen year old kid from a fucked up family needing third place in a shithole rodeo to get him and his horse home and thinking, “Hoo Boy, this is some fun.”
And that’s what’s missing, not from America, it’s out there, but from literature and politics and stories. Everything needs fixing, critiqued, blamed, or so the parvenus of our creative selves have it, and it feedbacks to how we verbally understand ourselves, we can’t set our souls sailing for drowning in our own piss puddle. This is the central dilemma of my life and of our times, 1980 to now. To fix this fixing shit, to put it out there, in words, the heart that’s left, is itself mere critique and comes off as either overly sincere or as punky doodle assholedness.
Thirty-one years later, it’s still noon o’clock stupid.
2004, May Day, New York City, the corner of Bowery and Houston Streets, the Liz Christy Community Garden, the turtle pond, I met my current gal Phyllis — Phyllis Curott, Ivy League educated, lawyer, social and spiritual activist, author, lecturer, named by Jane magazine “One of the ten gutsiest women in America,” called by New York Magazine “one of New York’s hippest and most intellectually cutting edge speakers.” True. And me, Toledo bricklayer/itinerant stonemason.
A curious match, no?
Fifteen years of laying brick and I belonged like in my DNA to that trade ten thousand years old, a trade that of itself liked to say that “We built the foundation upon which civilization rests.” Empires had come and gone. Cultures and religions had risen and disappeared. Languages evolved, flourished brilliantly and died. But every day, through it all, bricklayers had gone to work, learned their trade, passed it on master to apprentice. Put me on a crew building the walls of Jericho and I would have recognized the tools, the methods, the techniques. I could have stepped right in and gone to work. How you held a trowel, how you used it, was not something invented by an entrepreneurial genius. More it all was evolved and handed down through five hundred generations. Every bricklayer knew this on a gut level because every bricklayer was taught by someone who’d been doing it a long time and told you that he was taught by someone long ago who had been doing it a long time. I was taught by a man who was taught by a man who was taught by a man who had cut and laid stone in Garibaldi’s 19th century Italy. Every movement you made working had been refined by a collective consciousness that went back before recorded history. If, in ten thousand years, human beings are still to be building with stone and brick, they’ll be doing it the same way, with the same motions and techniques. There is no other way that’s right. And by 2004, that was the philosophy, three million bricks learned, that I claimed, and in all of New York City my favorite place was the turtle pond in the Liz Christy Community Garden where in the rubble that was the neighborhood in 1973 a young woman had cleared some away and planted trees and shrubs and flowers and put in a pond for turtles more ancient than the dinosaurs, and there they tried to live as they had for a hundred million years, and time to time one or another poked a head above the few square feet of green water and heard some of the roar of eight million people and looked at me on the small bench. “Yeah, brother,” I said to him, “I know what you mean.”
Phyllis had a different philosophy, that the sons of bitches had to be battled, that times were dire, that a proto-fascism was afoot.
And maybe it was. Or maybe it wasn’t.
But something was up with America. That a lovely, brilliant woman possessed of a dolce vita a little more refined than you’d have thought would go for a mope like me — that she was politically riled meant that something was up and to current events attention had to be paid.
And that very warm day in a relatively recent May was the beginning of my political engagé, I’m sorry to say. Politics is, no doubt about it, the lowest form of discourse, but everything is political now. What you eat, drink, buy, think, believe, watch, read, hear, drive, wear — it’s all inescapably political now, and there’s no better reason, believe me, for burning it all down, for praying with the fundy Rapturists for freaking Armageddon.
2008, the financial crisis, what we had of a portfolio — hers — AAA bonds up the wazoo, conservative as a church mouse, one step up from gold coins buried in the back yard, poof!
I had had my whole life to that point, fifty years, zero interest in finance, in economics, in Wall Street, in banking, none of it. I’d considered it part of my charm, a spiritual obligation, to be a dirty-handed antipode to a culture gone MBA. But I did what Phyllis asked, looked into what was economically going on, and being a bricklayer in my bones, methodical as a fairy tale, started with primers on economics and histories of finance and went from there through about all the books on high finance that soon flooded into bookstores and libraries and detailed all the whys, hows, whats and whos of the great crash. Near every night for two years, I lay propped up on my Siberian down pillows far into the a.m. hours — and who’d have thunk it, that the tales of billion-dollar bets and their bits of human real would have me fascinated and itch envy hungry as if reading a whaling adventure. I read of the reprobate gunslingers in boom-town Man-a-hattan and went more than a little sick, gut-sinking sick as only a man fifty years old can be sick that way.
America’s a big, restless country unlike any other. It has no center. It’s like a kid trying to punch its way out of rubber bag, stretching it this way, then that, and if you’re of the type with native heart, you want to be where the stretching’s going on. America’s unique that way. You never know where it’s gonna be next. You read our history and think that had you been young then, you’d have been in the 1840s with Melville in New Bedford, or digging the Erie Canal. In the 1850s, you’d have been in Concord, Mass., and if you were too young for that, you’d have gone West when Twain went West. You’d have gone to the Klondike in 1897, when Jack London went. In the Twenties, you’d have been in Paris, and with the Oakies in the Thirties and in Greenwich Village in the Fifties, Berkeley in the Sixties. America is different that way. Destiny is a mysterious thing here. Nobody tells you shit. You have to ransack your childhood for clues, see what it was what the generations that begat you were getting after — and off you go like we’ve always gone, from the Pilgrims on. Find America. I lay in bed and knew in my bones that the place to have been the last thirty years, the heart of my life, was Wall Street. It was like I had spent the Twenties in London. “Well, the pudding was good.”
I read and read and, against all instinct, I liked these guys, these traders, brokers, deal makers. I intuitively understood them. They were for the most part, more than you’d think, wrong-side-of-the-track guys who barged in on a white-shoe world, and America was never the same. And if they, from some perspectives, ruined the country, sold it out, looted it, so on, they had to them still that distinctly American epic energy to run roughshod forward, figure out the niceties later, when the ladies come home. Don’t get me wrong. Some were purebred putzes, like Alan Greenspan, and some were outright criminals, like Lloyd Blankfein, but a goddamn lot were, I’d say, to greater or lesser degrees, possessed of the complex ambiguities of our folk heroes of old. If you were to look at 1980 to 2010 for that generation’s Jesse James, John Henry, Jack London, Jack Johnson, Jack Kerouac, you’d look to Wall Street. More than anywhere else in America — and I was about everywhere else — you had there the outsized embodiment of something collective in us all. If America got going wrong in these years, these guys weren’t — and they were ninety-nine percent from the half of humanity with hang downs — a Fifth Column of treason. They were us, but to the nth degree and out front, surfing the lead wave of the tsunami of our history.
And they were young. Those who were still around at age thirty-five were the old men of the Street, and that’s a sure sign that that’s where it was us going on.
About 1990, a Saturday in Toledo, I bought at Sears two pair of jeans, ordinary Levis, thirty-two waist, thirty-six length, boot fit, twenty-eight dollars each. This was long a regular feature of my life, buying jeans and cycling them down from dress to work to trash, and being a creature of routine — I still shave with the double-edge razor my father handed down to me when I was sixteen and use the same shampoo since birth, Johnson’s Baby — I bought my jeans at Sears, the same two pair again and again, four minutes from in the store to out. That Saturday, I stopped on my way home at a friend’s where that day his woman had bought him six pair of jeans at Walmart for what I’d paid for my two pair. My comment was, “You’ll sell out America for a few pair of jeans.” She said it wasn’t her doing it. Something like that. Why should she be a sucker going broke buying jeans?
And she was right. And if you looked for that magical stock — my little brother got a few early shares of Microsoft — you were right, too. If you did a mortgage refi, you were trying to make money with money — and were right to do so. And if you bought a lottery ticket, the explosive growth of which were a sign of the times, a little Wall Street for the dopes, you were right, too. And if we — some of us — lily-white protested, it was sentimental only, and no one gave a fuck, not even the protesters. We Americans are not that type of people. We respond to an aura of the reckless, and that boys and girls, for the last thirty years, more than anywhere else, was Wall Street. That was where all the cowboys had gone.
But none became folk heroes, or even antiheroes, not to the culture at large. Which I found curious. What writers approached the place did so with a schoolmarm’s switch.
In Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Sherman McCoy, the millionaire bond trader, ends up penniless, awaiting trial.
In Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” Michael Douglas goes to jail and Martin Sheen, the union guy who builds airplanes, has the cast of the heroic.
In “Pretty Woman,” Richard Gere gives up his pirate ways to build ships.
They all might as well have ended their tales with Tiny Tim saying, “God bless us, every one!”
These were popular, supposedly zeitgeist stories from the Eighties and Nineties, but we didn’t go back to building ships and airplanes and sewing our own jeans, and we didn’t because we didn’t want our sons and daughters to build ships and airplanes and sew Levi jeans, not first choice we didn’t. Our fathers didn’t work in factories so that we would have to, too. That had to be, pari passu, part of it. We might have made bestsellers of Den of Thieves and Barbarians at the Gates, and Clinton might have felt our pain, but he did pass NAFTA, and in the Twenty Zeroes we closed fifty thousand American factories, same decade that our number one export to China became scrap.
I have a friend, a former Marine downsized from one of the Toledo glass companies, who spends his afternoons on his back porch with his laptop buying old surplus from the government and industry and selling it for scrap. He works about four hours a day, on a tough day, lives modestly and goes evenings to a working class bar where its denizens, trying to con extensions on their tabs and unemployment, ask him to be let in on his game.
Ambitious union bricklayers, a couple generations now, took on side work bricking up this or that residential home for someone in a bind or an acquaintance acting as their own contractor. They worked hard, weekends and evenings, and some had a taste for this, and a little business sense too, and they soon could make more money working for themselves. They quit their union jobs and competed one against the other and hired help and paid union wages maybe to start, in cash, no bennies, but there was soon competition and what their bricklayers made in 1973 bricking up a three thousand square foot doctor’s home was twice what they would make thirty years later (adjusted for inflation) stacking rock on a doctor’s new six thousand square foot home.
When you got in the union, you were told, “We’re all working for the same, or we’re all working for pennies,” and while that’s still as true as the gravitational laws of Newton, the slogan no longer inspires. The idea’s gone the way of Darwin in a Creationist curriculum.
Starting in the Nineties, the UAW began to sell out its younger members. They old guys kept their wages and prerogatives, but the curve was bent on the backs of the new hires. By 2010, you were welcomed to the UAW with fourteen dollars an hour and a “Have a nice life on that.”
The old guys watch hockey and NASCAR and Fox on their forty-eight-inch, high-def flat screens and blame it all — the greatest sell out in union history, ten times that of Maritime Union’s 1947 sell out — on forces beyond their control, on Wall Street, among other causes de jour.
I’d remind them that a country is its citizens, all of them, more the same than they’d ever know, possessed of a common core they don’t so often see. I am a Tolstoyan that way. A nation’s course moves not at the direction of a few great men, but by a million small actions, a billion-legged army of ants carrying the elephants on its back.
2009, 2010, into 2011, I read and read the individual human details of the thirty-year transformative rush on Wall Street and for the life of me, the very life of me, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t see bad guys, not many, not unambiguously bad. I saw us, like we saw us in the Sooners of the Oklahoma land rush, in the ’49ers of California, in the cowboys of the Chisholm Trail, on the beaches of Normandy, at Woodstock, 1969. I saw us. I saw guys daring to be us, guys riding the collective force of our individually weaker wills. Had Horace Greeley been alive in 1980, he wouldn’t have said, “Go west, young man.” He would have said, “Lower Manhattan, baby. Lower Manhattan.”
So if you ask me again what got going wrong, what didn’t happen, I’d say in a phrase that we refused to recognize the heroes of our own dissent.
I got over it, the feeling of having missed the boat of my times, for in the end, unlike all the other booms and moments of our restless history, the cowboy rush on Wall Street finally failed — and not so much that it crashed. Everything crashes. But it failed in that it gave us no heroes, none but Warren Buffet, a studied dullard who stayed fifteen hundred miles away and accumulated a small nation’s worth of wealth and did it in a manner that said anyone could do it, no balls required.
And that’s the thing.
One can see it as a fitting, legendless, cannibalizing endgame of the American myth. There’s zeitgeist truth in that, what? with a lot of end-of-empire talk about. But like bricklayers after the fall of Babylon or Rome, we’re here still. It’s a “Who’s next?” moment for the country as a whole. But we’re lost. We haven’t a clue.
In my thirty-month study, I learned how our economic system works, what drives it, how money and wealth are created, and I saw that these realities bore no relation to the solutions proposed and yakked about. To hear the common core of all sides, we want what is fundamentally a winner-take-all economic system, but one that provides for a broad and prosperous middle class.
And there’s no answer possible for that that is not stupidity itself.
Maybe we are at the end of empire, and its ours to squabble over our indolences and privileges, blogs and conspiracies, but I love too much what brung us here, the tumultuous truth of it, the epic ambiguity of America, that I have to believe, facts aside, that we’ll again be a kid in a rubber sack punching his way out, but if you’re expecting me to conjure up optimism, I can’t use any of the arguments I hear because they all, to me, are an enervating hog wallow of sentimentality. I’ll instead point to the best of us, to a nineteen year old calf roper in Augusta, Montana needing third place in a shithole rodeo to get home to a fucked-up family and thinking, “Hoo Boy! This is some fun.”
To my mind, it was possible, even likely, talking to him, using my Sherlock Holmes powers of observation, that back home in Trailer Park, New Mexico he had a mother or grandmother or aunt who had raised him and was incapacitated by enervation or indolence and without the government moola to keep her complaining, that kid’d have been strapped, working at the Dairy Queen to keep her in macaroni and pills. Likely, at some point, he’d have gone off anyway, chased the rodeo circuit, and in movies he’d have done okay, gotten third, or even second, been a hero in the end, but in real life nineteen times out of twenty, abandoning family to throw a rope around a calf in a game very very few ever win would have made him an asshole. But the calf-roper kid I met wasn’t an asshole. He was the best of us. And he was the best of us because we spent a hundred billion on his fat fuck of an indolent aunt.
Something like that — and worth every penny, I say. Asshole prevention is an expensive proposition.
I’m exaggerating, of course, but the point is that we’ve got nothing better going on. As a nation, as a people, we’ve lost the heart to set out again. Whether it’s economic, financial, environmental, political, social, artistic or spiritual, we haven’t for any of them a plan that even in the most optimistic scenarios solves the problem of handing to the future a diminished country. No proposal we’re making, right, left or center, can get us from here to there except on a magic carpet ride.
To hear us talk, one would think we were plopped down here, in the United States, May of 2011, into this mess none of our own doing. It’s in our literature, our politics, our daily lives. We’ve all taken on the persona of a comedian, critical, observant, angry, unresponsible for the absurdities and cruelties of the world that is, in the end, us — of our making. The old guys, Coleridge to Kerouac, imposed an aesthetic on the world, something active, triumphant, maybe tragic, but find that now, one that embraces the world, its contradictions and ambiguities. You can’t, and maybe that’s what Lee Harvey put three bullets into, November 22, 1963. Our writers, our whole generation, seek to ameliorate out all the intractable tensions from which rise genius and epic.
Something like that.
April, 1976, high school’s end, a rainy cold Saturday, I ran the three miles home from track practice, showered and lay on my bed pushed sideways to a window slightly open. It was a big family, mine, but in my memory I was alone, just the heavy cool of the quilt, the open window, the rain and scents of April from the blooming Magnolia tree below, kinda taking in this last tour of all the seasons of my last year at home, counting down weeks to West Point and no more me, not this mope on a bed on a Saturday afternoon. Then my mother returned from a garage sale and by and by made her way up to my room to deliver to me a present, four red books, a set, used, The World’s Great Thinkers, Random House, 1947.
I have them still, three of the four, one lost to the recklessness of my life. The books contain thumbnail biographies of and long excerpts from the works of history’s greatest thinkers.
It wasn’t my kind of thing, not then, but I looked over the red books and figured my mother wanted to give her soon-to-be military son a leavening of humanism and to show my appreciation for her thoughtfulness, I skimmed through the contents and fell upon the title, “Self Reliance,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. For a seventeen year old about to go off into the world, that might be something okay to read. “Thanks, Mom. I’ll give this a try.” I turned to page 383 and read what’s quoted below, from the first paragraph of the essay:
…To believe your own private thought, to believe that what is true for you in your own private heart is true for all men — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato and Milton is that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson than for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.
And that was it, the end of West Point and me. I mightn’t have known it at that moment, at the end of that paragraph, but I did know that from that moment on I would live for the genius in me. I would protect it above all else. I thought these things with the kind of fervor only a seventeen year old could possess, and it didn’t take long, less than a month, to announce at dinner, “I’m not going.”
What’s funny is that I didn’t have any idea what form this genius might take, but I met Getz and went where all geniuses with a genius for nothing went, to literature, and for thirty-some years now have watched the works and words of my generation come into print, and I have recognized my own rejected thoughts come back to me, but I wouldn’t use the words “with a certain alienated majesty.” I don’t know what words to use, and I don’t want to be disparaging. I could not have done better. But when I come across passages and stories that I could have written, there’s this sense of relief that it is not my name attached.
And as those of my generation become the establishment, become president, get a Time Magazine cover with “Great American Novelist” below the pic, run the big Wall Street banks, Hollywood movie studios, so on, and I look back over my life and see what I could have been, there’s none of the bitterness the poet said about those cruel words — might have been. I am of my generation, inseparable from it, formed by it and forming it, and I could not have done better, no one could have, and I don’t mind that to nothing of the past thirty years has my name been attached. None of it had to it, what?
I hunt and peck with clumsy workingman fingers on a stiff little keyboard quite confident at last in my lack of genius, but in seeing that I never had it, I see too that none of us had it either, that it’s not in us anymore, not in our music or art or politics or daily life. Getz would disagree, but what we call the American Dream is the fall back position, a staging area for something else. It’s what we do when we’ve lost heart for what is truly American. I know this. I’ve time to time lived it, the American Dream. I’m living it now, but have always been ready, even eager, to trade it in for a lick of genius. And most ordinary guys understand this. I’ve lived among them and worked side by side with them all my life, from coal mines to swinging scaffolds forty stories up, guys working — supposedly — to give it better to their families, guys our superstars thank, but when from time to time I have set off, said to my brothers, “I’m outta here,” I saw my own hunger in their eyes. “Where to?” they asked. And the answer, the right answer, was and is always the same: a shrug and crooked little grin. “I’ll let you know when I get back.”