Black Sparrow Press, $25.00 (cloth) $13.00 (paper)
Some years ago, when I worked as an interpreter at Criminal Court in Manhattan,
I confessed to a cop I knew my ambition to be a novelist. He gave me a hard-eyed
look, led me to his locker, and cracked open the door. There, next to his .38
and his pinups, were four novels by Charles Bukowski. "You want to talk
about writing?" he said. "This is the only damn writer in America."
He wasn't alone: Bukowski's following is almost fanatical. And they're everywhere:
the UPS driver poring through his dog-eared copy of Post Office; the
23-year-old beach bum cackling over Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions
and General Tales of Ordinary Madness; and the effete academic, secretly
cheering the gross insensitivities of Chinaski, Bukowski's autobiographical
The cop lent me a few of the books from his locker, and I understood his attraction.
Here was a detailed depiction of a certain taboo male fantasy: the uninhibited
bachelor, slobby, anti-social, and utterly free. Chinaski's existence is an
unending chronicle of farts, drunks, shits, fucks, brawls, and visits to the
racetrack, punctuated by bouts of creativity for which he indifferently receives
the world's adulation or reproach. His blurring succession of women are as crazy
as he is: they get drunk together, snarl at each other, and screw like bobcats.
And it all takes place in a comic and unpretentious prose that broadcasts Bukowski's
impatience with trust funders, wannabes, feminists, bourgeois liberals, and
almost every other writer in the world -- a conception of the enemy that my
friend at the courthouse enthusiastically shared.
It's a formula that has stayed pretty much the same from his first book to his
fortieth, and sometimes it's monotonous. But two things save him from the status
of a Beat Generation Archie Bunker with worn-out schtick: there are the achingly
lyrical moments of which he's capable -- just read his list of titles, particularly
the poetry: Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail; The Days Run Away Like
Wild Horses Over the Hill, South of No North -- and there's the rank exposure
and hopelessness of his debauchery, the unmitigated futility of his existence,
presented not as a judgment but a human fact. When he is wise enough to include
himself in the wretched condition of his characters -- and not to gloat about
Chinaski's uninhibited "freedom" -- his work hits its most honest
and self-revealing notes, and rises to the ranks of literature.
Pulp is Bukowski's good-bye song in prose: he died of leukemia in March
at 73. It was not an unexpected death, and readers of his last poems know it
had been much on his mind. True to its title, Pulp opens on one Nick
Belane, a down-at-the-heels private dick sitting in his office sourly crushing
flies. In sashays his first paying client in years, a dizzyingly voluptuous
dame who identifies herself as Lady Death. Belane's irrepressible (and pathetic)
I . . . began staring up her legs. I was always a leg man. It was
the first thing I saw when I was born. But then I was trying to get out. Ever
since I have been working in the other direction and with pretty lousy luck.
His luck doesn't get much better. Especially when Lady D. drops the details of
her assignment: to find none other than the French novelist Louis Ferdinand Céline
who, though presumed to have died 32 years ago, seems to have escaped the Lady's
Incompetent but game, Belane hits the trail. Soon he finds his mark, hanging around
Red Koldowsky's bookstore in Hollywood. "You're lucky," says Red when
Belane walks into the store, "you just missed that drunk Chinaski."
When Belane spots Céline he stops dead in his tracks. The sense of recognition
between them is immediate and pure: "He looked at me...we just stood there
looking at each other."
Pulp is filled with such personal signposts -- sometimes, it seems, with
not much more. One patronly and supportive client, John Barton, entrusts Belane
with finding the Red Sparrow, a logo or thing that has mysteriously disappeared.
The successful completion of this task will result in a monthly check to Belane
for the rest of his earthly days. This is far from Bukowski's
first homage to his publisher John Martin of Black Sparrow Press, who supported
Bukowski with carefully apportioned stipends through lean times and fat for more
than 35 years.
Unlike the randy Chinaski, poor, frustrated Belane never manages to get any of
the women he meets to bed -- duty and existential fear consistently (and hilariously)
thwart him. Meanwhile, work floods in; as in most private eye novels, one mystery
leads to the solution of the next, and seemingly unrelated elements miraculously
converge. Far more rewarding than the plot, however, are Bukowski's trademark
observations and asides. Fearing madness, at one point, Belane stumbles into a
psychiatrist's office. While cooling his heels in the waiting room, he assesses
the situation: "Doesn't the shrink know that waiting is one of the things
that drives people crazy?" At another point he hears the sound of gunfire
outside and knows that everything is all right with the world. LA stands for "Lost
Assholes," and "existence was not only absurd, it was plain hard work.
Think how many times you put on your underwear in a lifetime. It was appalling,
it was disgusting, it was stupid."
It's all Bukowski, despite the new form. Pulp is a lightning fast farewell
tour of familiar haunts: replete with obligatory visits to the racetrack (the
closest thing to a church in Bukowski's world), annoying and intrusive neighbors,
truculent bartenders, and deliciously lonely holidays with a quart of vodka in
his apartment. Critical analysis, here as elsewhere in Bukowski's life work, is
as pointless as recommending him to a 12-step program. What is most admirable
-- and moving -- about Pulp is how bravely playful it is, how generally
undisturbed Bukowski seems by his approaching death. There's no sentimentality,
no redemption, no expiation. On every page the narrator faces the end with his
fist around an 80 proof bottle and his brass knuckles shining.
In this respect, Belane's last assignment is an apt one: Bukowski owes a great
deal to Céline, one of his few literary models. Like Céline, Bukowski
was a loner, unaffiliated with any writing "movement" or "school."
Like Céline, he was discovered by a prescient editor relatively late in
his writing career. And, most importantly, Céline created the prototype
not only for Chinaski but for many other keen-eyed and haphazard observers of
the bitter absurdities of the world.
But Céline's merciless and unrelenting portrait of the French bourgeoisie
is chilling because it is also a self-portrait. His is not an observer's lucidity,
but the scary sentience of one who is inside the nightmare and knows it. His anti-semitism
and petty bigotries were those of the people he wrote about, trapped in the hell
he so ardently described. In almost every line one can hear the sotto voce
of the author crying that idealism and hope are the worst delusions, evil chimeras
that keep us from seeing ourselves for what we are. His only recourse was the
bitter humor that gave his work its agonized lyricism and profundity.
This is the vital dimension that is lacking in Bukowski. He was an outsider who
lived as he wanted to live, playing the renegade with impunity and at little existential
cost, and it is -- surprisingly, for his life encompassed a very great deal of
suffering -- this relative ease and satisfaction of his position that ultimately
limits the reach of his work. In the end, what I get from Bukowski is the description
of a lifestyle rather than a consciousness laid bare -- a lifestyle largely
devoid of social texture and depth. He probably would have hated the use of that
word next to his name, but, as Chinaski himself might have said, his great victory
was not the endurance of his writing but the fact that it saved him from the drudgery
of having to hold down a nine to five job.
In the end, Lady Death returns like a savior.
Under the Bone
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $20.00
Jean-Bertrand Aristide may have more of a future as a fictional character
than he does as Haiti's president, if Brian Moore's recent No Other Life
and Anne-Christine d'Adesky's first novel, Under the Bone, indicate a
trend. D'Adesky casts Aristide as Père Emmanual, one of the Haitian activists
protesting the violence engulfing the country in the wake of Baby Doc's ouster.
While Haiti inches toward democracy in the summer of 1986, the military consolidates
its power with its well-used tools of brutality and intimidation. Under the
cover of night, the army's henchmen murder and steal, often silencing witnesses
by jailing them. One such victim is a young peasant woman, Elyse Voltaire, who
discovers the rotting corpse of a murdered man. She is sent to prison, yet the
officials refuse to acknowledge her arrest. Another is Cedric George, an organizer,
who disappears after thugs raid his office.
Their plight comes to the attention of Emmanual and his equally dedicated colleagues
-- the lawyer Gerard, the union leaders Victor and Edith, the doctor Sylvie
-- whose attentions and resources are already stretched by hundreds of similar
cases. With the help of an American human rights worker, Leslie Doyle, they
try to solve the mystery of Cedric's disappearance and work toward releasing
Elyse from prison.
Under the Bone is not plot-driven, but an ambitiously conceived novel
of voices. Employing a variety of techniques -- a shifting narrative shared
unequally between six characters of different races and classes, a welter of
documents quoted throughout the novel, unattributed and italicized passages
-- d'Adesky endeavors to create a Rashomon effect, in which the witnesses
are the multiple perspectives of her characters, and the crime is Haiti itself.
Cedric searches desperately for a hiding place, but is easily recognizable.
So he runs, cursing the cowardice of those around
him in a passage that shows how eloquent d'Adesky can be: "For now all
I can see
with this election is the fever it causes in our people. Small dogs fighting
over the smallest bone without enough meat . . . but
they smell the blood inside the bone and it makes them crazy. A fever . . .
not a revolution." The pregnant Elyse, meanwhile, is locked inside a dank
cell. Carrying on imaginary conversations with her lover and grandmother, she
remains unbroken. "The stones around the edges of the room are crumbling.
Elyse licks her fingers, touching the wall. . . . There are signs and meanings
in everything, Grann has told her, in every action, in every object."
Elyse and Cedric's refusal to succumb to despair should have been the emotional
center that held the disparate elements of Under the Bone together. Perhaps
because d'Adesky is farther distanced from them, Cedric and Elyse are the most
completely realized characters in the novel; d'Adesky describes their predicament
in a streamlined style that retains its force precisely because she has jettisoned
all her distracting mannerisms. The result is prose that shimmers with detail:
She hears the high, thin notes of the tin horns above the sound of
drums. The parade laughs, jokes, as it moves. Pairs of feet glide along the
wet grass, like a slow-moving train, stopping often. . . . A wet sound, the
slap of flesh, sharp snapping like a peapod broken, the sound of legs stomping
the ground, marking the place, sliding forward again.
Their stories, however, are lost in her insistence on something she feels is larger
-- an indictment of Haiti's military and its accomplice, the American government.
It's a noble effort, but d'Adesky's thoroughness as a journalist -- she has reported
on Haiti for various newspapers and magazines -- interferes again and again with
her craft as a novelist. She takes the reader on a human-rights tour of Haiti:
into the unacknowledged body dump of Tintanyin, the AIDS ward of a hospital, the
prisons, the once elegant, now empty and grafitti-covered houses belonging to
the Duvalierists. The reader enters the American embassy canteen and listens as
the priggish embassy official lectures on Haiti's problems and "all these
journalists who come down here with their armchair statistics" -- a scene
that feels lifted from the pages of d'Adesky's own notebook. And while this lends
authority to her message -- d'Adesky has a reporter's eye for the telling detail
-- the sheer volume of observation eventually overwhelms her fiction.
Contributing to the novel's glacial progress is d'Adesky's habit of cluttering
her story with faxes, pastoral letters, transcripts of testimony gathered by the
Red Cross, and autopsy reports. Obviously d'Adesky wants the most complete answer
to the question she poses in her prologue -- "What exactly is happening?".
She may even want her readers to experience the same informational overload that
afflicts her characters. But as so often happens in Under the Bone, the
reader is left in a thicket of heavy-handed information. Someone interested in
Haitian history would do better reading Amy Wilentz's The Rainy Season,
a nonfiction account roughly covering the same time span.
Poor craftsmanship is the only way to explain the clumsy flaws in this novel.
The dialogue, on which d'Adesky relies heavily, is frequently meandering and repetitive,
neither advancing the action nor providing closure. Many of the subplots prove
irrelevant, as in the case of Gerard's construction of a "paper trail"
of money stolen by the Duvaliers. Elsewhere, a tepid attraction between Leslie
and her Haitian driver -- in which d'Adesky seems to lose interest -- remains
unconsummated. The novel doesn't end so much as dwindle, leaving its characters
suspended in a literary limbo.
If, as Dr. Sylvie says to Père Emmanual, the true measure of a person's
life lies "under the bone," then the true novel in this sprawling, shapeless
book lies in d'Adesky's passionate portrayal of Elyse Voltaire and Cedric George
-- the rest is expendable.
Crossing the River
Alfred A. Knopf, $20.00
Farah Jasmine Griffin
Caryl Phillips's stunning novel begins in a painful act of abandonment: the
anonymous narrator, a father on West Africa's Pagan Coast, sells his three children
into slavery. Through this desperate act, he unwittingly initiates a "many-tongued
. . . chorus of common memory" that extends from the Middle Passage, through
Liberia, across the United States to Colorado, and to World War II Britain.
The voices that comprise this chorus bear eloquent witness to the disruption,
displacement, and loss of Diaspora -- and to the common humanity of the enslaved,
the enslavers, and their common descendants.
James Hamilton, slave trader and captain of the Duke
of York, records the mundane details of his life in a captain's log: "Thursday
27th August . . . All day fair weather. A brig informed us of variable winds";
"Monday 5th October . . . Caught a small dolphin"; "Monday 16th
November . . . Was shown 11 slaves, of whom I picked 5, viz., 4 men, 1 woman."
On January 10th he writes to his wife, "My affection for you goes beyond
any words I can find or use, and I simply wish that it were possible for you
to travel with me, and strengthen my purpose in fatigue and difficulty, without
actually suffering them." Twelve days later he notes in the ship's log,
"Bought a pair
of man-boys from an African prince." Such juxtapositions underscore the
horror of Hamilton's trade. His actions are so frightening because his sensibilities
-- his concern for the weather, his inexpressible love for his wife, and his
sense that "a continued indulgence in this trade and a keen faith cannot
reside in one breast" -- are so familiar.
Edward Williams, too, is guilt-ridden. At age 29, he inherits his father's estate,
including 300 slaves. Concerned to still his conscience, Williams educates them
and trains the best and brightest to become missionaries. He also displays an
"excess of affection" for his young male slaves, especially Nash Williams
who calls Edward "Father," signing letters from Liberia, "Your
Nash Williams is the ambivalent diasporic subject in search of "home."
His seven years of unanswered letters to Edward -- letters intercepted by Edward's
jealous wife -- trace his growth from a westernized Christian missionary, grateful
for his master's benevolence, into the embittered man who has "freely [chosen]
to live the life of the African." In a letter dated September 11, 1834,
Williams writes, "Liberia, the beautiful land of my forefathers, is a place
where persons of color may enjoy their freedom. It is the home for our race,
and a country in which industry and perseverance are required to make a man
happy and wealthy. Its laws are founded upon justice and equality, and here
we may sit under the palm tree and enjoy the same privileges as our white brethren
in America. Liberia is the star in the East for the free colored man. It is
truly our only home." Nash's final letter to Edward Williams crystallizes
his growing distance from his former master and from his role as missionary:
"We, the colored man, have been oppressed long enough. We need to contend
for our rights, stand our ground, and feel the love of liberty that can never
be found in your America. Far from corrupting my soul, this Commonwealth of
Liberia has provided me with the opportunity to open up my eyes and cast off
the garb of ignorance which has encompassed me all too securely the whole course
of my life." Nash Williams emerges from his letters as an assured and defiant
descendant of the anonymous African, finally recognizing the need to resist
white supremacy, even when it appears in the garb of benevolent paternalism.
While Phillips reveals Hamilton and Williams through the subtle linearity of
their own voices, in journal entries and letters, we learn about Martha, the
only black woman of the novel, through interior monologue and the observations
of an omniscient narrator. An elderly former slave, Martha joins a band of black
pioneers traveling west. Having lost first her daughter and then her lover,
she is abandoned on the streets of Denver when she becomes too much of a burden
on the other travellers. Huddled in a doorway, "curling herself into a
tight fist against the cold," Martha resembles the street
people of our day, lost and abandoned souls who garner our pity or our wrath.
Wondering whether a passerby will spit on her, she finally asks, "Father,
why hast thou forsaken me?"
Martha's story is rich, nuanced and unfamiliar. She is an elderly black woman,
tired, not strong or invincible: victimized but not victim. Both blacks and
whites abandon her. And, she is not religious: "Martha could find no solace
in religion, and was unable to sympathize with the sufferings of the son of
God when set against her own private misery." Her question, "Father,
why hast thou forsaken me?" is not a momentary lapse but an emblem of her
crisis of faith. Moreover, her story takes place in an unfamiliar territory,
the west. Few African American writers have mapped the terrain of those black
pioneers who trekked west in search of "a place where things were a little
better than bad, and where you weren't always looking over your shoulder and
wondering when somebody was going to do you wrong." Although Martha's body
moves in a freer space, that tired, broken body cannot take advantage of this
freedom, and its mind remains enslaved by memory.
Through Martha we learn the subtle differences between slavery and freedom:
life doesn't get easier, one just has the right to claim a momentary happiness.
"I was free now, but it was difficult to tell what difference being free
was making in my life. I was just doing the same things like before, only I
was more contented, not on account of no emancipation proclamation, but on account
of my Chester." This freedom is a tenuous thing. When white men kill her
independent black lover, the man who "has made [her] happy . . . made [her]
forget -- and that's a gift from above," Martha wonders "if love was
possible without somebody taking it from her." A daughter of the despondent
African father, Martha dies alone, anonymous, on the far bank of the river.
The final section of the novel brings the progeny of slave and enslaver together
in an act of passion and love. Travis is an American GI stationed "somewhere
in England." His beloved Joyce is a married, white, working-class, English
woman. Joyce's sensitive, if cynical, voice dominates her tale. Speaking of
Churchill and the war, she says, "I was getting good at learning the difference
between the official stories and the evidence before my eyes." She is able,
in particular, to see through an American officer's warnings about the black
GIs stationed in her town, and she falls in love with Travis. Her defiance and
independence allow her to be open to Travis, while distancing her from her provincial
and abusive mother and husband. The clear-eyed, unsentimental Joyce speaks one
of the major truths of the novel. Looking at her coffee-colored son, Greer,
she thinks, "I almost said make yourself at home, but I didn't. At least
I avoided that."
Through her love for Travis and the child they share, Joyce joins the Diaspora,
and she pays a price for this alliance. In loving Travis, she boldly resists
the color line, but she is forced to give up their child -- yet another brown
baby given away by a loving but desperate parent.
Caryl Phillips gives us a world of abandoned souls, of resistance, and of desperate,
momentary love -- the world of the African Diaspora and the new culture that
is born from it. In the book's final pages, surely among the most powerful and
beautiful pages written in contemporary literature, we hear this culture's own
song. Phillips's culture of diaspora is not romanticized, rooted in a mythological
African past, and the culminating chorus is correspondingly inharmonious. It
sounds the voices of all the novel's characters, including that prophetic anonymous
narrator who, having initiated the chorus, maps the contours of the African
Diaspora in its complex, multicolored pathos and its human beauty.
Originally published in the June/September
1994 issue of Boston Review