X’s time in high school was like yours, and he was miserable. Like you he remained separated from everybody as much as possible, only coming along for nights in the country when there were enough weird drugs, or booze for him to forget just how painfully normal they all were. And like you he obsessively began to watch movies about punk rock, and alternative cultures, trying to find exactly how he fit into the gigantic melee of confusion that was the United States. Like you he made it a point to damn his parents and everything they believed in, and living in St. Paul he spent a good deal of time driving around on Highway 94 to the surrounding suburbs with his sister and their friends getting high and drunk and being careless, maybe free. X enjoyed danger, enjoyed the sensation of being on that edge he’d heard described by men like Hunter S. Thompson, wishing he’d been born years earlier so he could’ve been a Hell’s Angel or something. He tried most of his drugs in those days, and has slowed down since out of sheer boredom with that world. He drank enough in high school to satiate the bibulous desires of any fifty-year-old war veteran. He’d to go punk shows in Minneapolis and wind up passed out on some couch next to some twenty-three year old girl with tattoos of bands like Joy Division and Black Flag and he’d playfully suck on her neck when four in the morning got too lonely. He cut myself a little more but was taking anti-depressants and thus didn’t get too down on himself for those slip-ups. On occasion he got in trouble for drinking and received various admonitions from police and parents by the time he was eighteen. He spent one night in jail on his nineteenth birthday and that night was one of his final bouts of real drinking; all indirectly related to a mood-shifting breakup with his high school sweetheart. He enjoyed the hell out of himself, much like you, but remained convinced all along that this was probably the worst place in the world to grow up. He went to see Garrison Keillor’s show with his father and his rebound girlfriend and had an OK time, went to see his mother after that and spent the evening watching Audrey Hepburn movies on her couch with his rebound girlfriend, Ella, and his sister. He spent many nights alone in his room listening to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, and Elliott Smith. Somehow the two seem to signify his youth better than any description could do. Smith’s work has always connected X with that miserable core all possess. Misery is humanity to X, and out of that misery came a profound change that he kept running back to time and time again with his rendition of ‘Figure 8,’ and songs like ‘Needle in the Hay,’ that described pain better than everything else. With Iggy Pop he felt connected to the weirdness all possess at the very core, and on that record in particular Iggy Pop had accessed something that goes largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. David Bowie, in X’s eyes, won all the credit that Iggy Pop deserved, and X couldn’t help but feel cheated every time Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy period was mentioned without even the acknowledgment of Pop’s Idiot. Those were the first times he felt connected with music.
X enjoyed going to several small museums in the Cities in those days and as a result became well acquainted with the works of Jackson Pollock, who will always be his favorite painter. When he was nearly infantile it was always Dürer, and that still goes unexplained in the confines of his skull, but now, and forever more, it’s Pollock. Pollock. Pollock.
One of the most known drunken self-destruction artists of the last three hundred years, Jackson Pollock influenced X because he seemed more American than any painter before, or after, his time. Boring art school types enjoy citing the works of Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and are typically quick to dismiss Pollock as too scatterbrained, with too much emphasis on the bizarre and nonlinear. However, even as a teenager, X put it to them that his work not only chronicled the American Mess in such a phenomenal and groundbreaking way that it defies petty judgment or mere criticism, but that as a man and an innovator Jackson Pollock was and remains the most influential abstract artist to come from this country’s soil, period.
But that isn’t what X liked about it. He didn’t like those conversations, didn’t like having to prove why he liked somebody. It’s become a reflex to try and articulate it now, nobody seems ready to let anyone else love something for the hell of it. What X liked about it as a teenager was that he’d never seen thoughts conveyed that way before, and the way Pollock did it, hasn’t seen it since. He’d stand there staring at every inch of his paintings from the opening, to the closing of a museum, and he’d go home trying to write impressionist poems in homage to his work. X realized through looking at his work that he could never and would never want to be a painter, or even a sketch artist, because everything Pollock was doing with paint, X seemed to want to then be able to do with the written word. Somehow the channels just made sense to him. So he’d sit in his room, watching that Ed Harris-directed biopic Pollock, over and over and write long, conversational prose pieces in which the characters found interesting ways to scream “BITCH. BITCH. BITCH. BITCH. BITCH. BITCH. BITCH,” at one another before painting chaos.
Thus, X was not taught to write by the works of another writer. He did not look up to Hemingway. He did not find a copy of Fante in the back of the Los Angeles Public Library like Bukowski and he did not seek to emulate Joan Didion like Bret Easton Ellis. He did not read Faulkner or Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky in his early years and find that he was compelled to tell a story. X learned to do what he now does through the process of negation. His desire to write came from the crushing non-desire to paint. He looked at the works of Jackson Pollock over and over again and, realizing he could at best hope to paint like he did, knew that he had to find some other form, some unprecedented way of approaching the medium just like Jackson; and that way could carry on his legacy without simply using his aesthetic to feel closer to an idol.
After X realized what he wanted to do he approached books with a new verve that seemed to come from nowhere at all. He’d sit up nights on his father’s couch, having to wake for school the next day bright and early, tearing hair out over copies of books like American Psycho, or The Great Gatsby, or Garden of Eden, or Ask the Dust, or Women, or Tough Guys Don’t Dance, or The Fight, or Less than Zero, or Hell’s Angels, or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or The Road to Los Angeles, or The Killer Inside Me, or It, or, or Carrie, and he’d leave the paperbacks read, and reread, in piles next to the couch when finally falling asleep. Sometimes he read five or six books at once, plowing through them in various locales around the Cities, riding the Light Rail out to the St. Paul Airport and back just for a little extra time in each of his fantasied lands. And it was through all of this that X slowly learned to write his way, and thus became obsessed with the thought of when he’d finally be able to write that first novel.
In weeks prior at the bookstore he’d been particularly taken by two books in or near the ‘Classics,’ section. One was a book of letters by F. Scott Fitzgerald—Fitzgerald being one of X’s unquestionable favorites, having left an indelible mark on him when he’d read This side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, and The Great Gatsby in succession the Christmas prior. He looked at its green cover, now devoid of its dust jacket and carrying a certain level of timelessness. He opened it up to some letter he’d written to Hemingway about the pain it caused him to read of Ernest’s opinion of him in certain of his stories, and that he hoped Hem could please stop slandering him in the public eye. That brought X down, both were Midwesterners, occasional expats, both were hard workers. Both of them believed in the Art of Writing more than anything in this world, and yet Hemingway—because he’d spent too much time watching bull fights and drinking wine with Ezra Pound in Europe—felt that for some reason he’d exceeded Fitzgerald as a man, and a writer, which X couldn’t see as anything but rivalry. Ernest notes that Fitz once asked him to measure the size of his cock in a Spanish café, and that very likely was the case, but wasn’t this sort of paranoid neuroticism at the root of all writers? All creators? Didn’t that slander Hem’s loyalty? Though perhaps that was good reason those thoughts never made it to press in Hem’s lifetime, and X figured he’d likely never know whether his will indicated it should, but either way, it seemed like a rotten way to treat a friend, Nobel laureate or not.
The book was now marked down to four dollars, so X grabbed it, lugging it back to the classics to eye up the novel he couldn’t take his attention from any time he entered the store.
Its author was a man named Patrick White. X had seen his name before, even seen the only interview available online of the man upon his being informed that he was going to win the Nobel Prize (when X becomes interested in an author/artist he begins a long process of researching their work, and their lives with a severity that is unlike any course of study he’s ever experienced in, or out of academia). White seemed like a funny man, he told the interviewer that the night he received the news he’d already taken his sleeping pill, so he went to sleep just as he would’ve any other night. X liked that. X knew the whole story of the founding of the Nobel Prize (how its inventor also invented dynamite, and upon the misprint of his obituary instead of his brother’s—when his brother died—and the obit citing what a terrible man he was, he started a program with the dynamite money to give out the prizes for various areas of study and World Peace) and knowing this X cared less and less about who won it. It was, however, always interesting to hear the speeches certain winners gave, or in various cases the letters they wrote. Men like Jean-Paul Sartre—who rejected the prize—always struck X as terribly boring; if you’ve won a prize, you should use its acceptance as the one chance few artists get to speak directly to the world, and rejecting it—although sending a message—did not send nearly the message Monsier Sartre probably would have preferred. The name of the White novel he’d so come to adore, was The Vivisector. On its cover was a man with a delusional look in his eye, and above his head was a sort of Eye of Ra drawing done in blood red paint. X opened it, as he had many times before, and began to read of Hurtle Duffield and his journey from bleak Australian indigence to the life of an artist.
Both books came to nine dollars, and Warren opted to pay. X let him, smiling graciously and welcoming the arm he reached out to wrap X up with. He paid the girl, dressed in a torn yellow sweater with dyed black hair; looking a bit like a skinnier, female version of Kurt Cobain on Nirvana’s Unplugged performance. X took the bag she reached out with both of the rather heavy books and they walked outside into the brisk fall day, the sun shining fully down on them as they turned right, and Warren guided them down toward Clark, where they’d turn to spend the day shopping in places X would almost certainly ignore to stand picking through the books he’d just bought—or rather, received.
The summer prior X had done two unchangeable, and pivotal things. The first was the writing of his first—at least he considered it his first—real novel. He’d written a novella the winter before that entitled Ego wilts to Sunday about the life of a young blind boy who’s suddenly lost all his family and is required to spend his formative years in a group home; but that never felt real enough to X to actually consider it a substantial novel, or even a book worth publishing. The book he wrote that following summer was called The Debauchery of St. Vitruvius, and it documented the life of a man who’s a lobbyist for Atheism. He had written entire books, volumes on all things anti-god, and he functioned as a generous and well-respected member of society. He spoke at the White House and was given an honorary mention in one of the Presidential Addresses—to be sure, this was always seen as a bit of a novelty in the press. Eventually a group of maniacal pro-religion goons started to stalk him, and when one of them finally—after roughly 300 pages—holds a gun to the back of his neck, his last words are, “Thank G—“ before the trigger is pulled. X wrote it in a fury after watching hours of conspiracy videos on the Vatican and its functions for the last two hundred years or so online, and he had finally completed what he thought was a book worth reading.
The second thing X did was print Ego wilts to Sunday as a chapbook. He’d read of Fernando Pessoa and Pier Paolo Pasolini publishing certain things as chapbooks, and was so taken with the romance of it that he managed to cram the roughly 50,000 words of Ego between the pages of a small hand-sewn edition. He printed 50, with artwork done by him, and handed them out all over Chicago.
This was on his mind as X was walking by an M. U. building, at the door of which sat a small display marked ‘Free,’ where students could place their work. Two copies of Ego sat there, and although he knew they’d be there—given that hardly anybody really seemed to want to read the novel—it struck him as one of the more moving images he’d ever seen. X then felt much like David Windham, the man from Debauchery, who walked the streets of Milwaukee in his youth trapped in the paranoia that one of the men who took his father away—men, it would later be revealed, who had met David’s father at a meeting of Scientologists—would come to take him. David lived his youth on the street, drunk and trying to make ends meet, and finally he walked into a building where this man was talking about Nietzsche, himself rather drunk, and homeless, it appeared. The two of them developed a friendship that would change David’s life, and eventually all of David’s work would be dedicated to this man.
Throughout one’s life as a man, or woman, every human being develops certain avenues, buildings, or frames of mind, which resemble the womb. For a while in his younger years it was always the shower, or the bathtub. X would sit in the shower for roughly an hour each night, masturbating, sometimes even pulling up the grate over the drain and defecating right down it to save himself the agony of getting out, drying off, shitting, then coming back into the shower. Then in his senior year the bathtub became highly important because his bedroom at his father’s home did not have a couch, nor was there a couch in the entire place that he was comfortable sitting in, and accordingly the bathtub became his place to read.
In recent years, X’s womb has been the movies.
He walked to the train, rubbing hands together, anxious. The train was largely empty as it was a Sunday afternoon, and he took Chicago’s Redline into the loop, where at Roosevelt stop he exited, and walked quickly in the sun to a theater tucked back in a clandestine village of condos just beyond a Target; his recent hiding place.
X paid to see something new with Christian Bale, then bought a large popcorn, a large Diet Coke, and two boxes of Milk Duds. X went to the theatre—the largest one in the building, as this was the newest film to date—and walked up the steps in the back to his seat. X always sat in the back, on the far left, as far back into the left corner as you can possibly go. He set down his stuff, buried the cellphone, and keys, and wallet beneath the sweater he took off to take a breath. Then he went out, walked to the bathroom, relieved himself and washed his hands with severe fastidiousness, and walked back to his seat in the theater. He took off his shoes, as he often did, and drifted into the waking sleep of the next two hours, enjoying—even relishing—every minute of it, but knowing all the while the pain he was escaping, the reality he then needed to reject.
While X sits there, watching one film, then sneaking into another with his Diet Coke and the remaining box of Milk Duds, a trace of X’s memory seems apt: one of his favorite examples of human performance, as the characters on the screen brought up this image every time he let go in the movies.
It is rumored, and who can say whether this is true, that Andy Kaufman—the comedian that “Man on the Moon,” the song by REM is based on, dedicated to, etc.—in the height of his career, when he was an icon, when his stand up comedy was the sort of thing kids hung on the very edge of their seats to indulge in, had a very particular way of surprising his crowds: He would walk out, clad in his trademark suit with parted hair and turtle neck beneath, holding a copy of The Great Gatsby, and for the next four hours or so, however long it took, would read the entire book to the audience, not exaggerating any more than was necessary, and not giving any indication that what he was doing was supposed to be funny. Now that’s just a rumor, something X heard from a friend on the train one night, but he’s never heard a more perfect example of what the artist should do for society. THE ARTIST NEED DO ABSOLUTELY NOTHING FOR SOCIETY. Society begat the artist, and very much like the Engineer, or the Construction Foreman, he accordingly only owes his life to himself.
X isn’t sure. Perhaps it’s nothing, perhaps he’s just so damned involved in watching himself watch that movie to relax that he can’t think of anything better, but he had Andy Kaufman on the brain. The film became layered, maybe, with Andy reading over Christian Bale in X’s mind in permissive darkness.
After the movie he was drained; went into the bathroom and took a long shit, reading the AP on his cellphone and texting several girls, and Warren about plans for the night. X looked forward to going home; looked forward to watching TV or something with Warren and getting into something; or maybe he’d just masturbate and get to sleep.
Returning then, his roommates—Emily and Warren—were watching Closer, a film he’d seen once and moderately enjoyed. The minute X walked in his favorite scene happened, which plucked an eerie note. The scene was the only moment he felt truly engrossed from the beginning to end of that movie—it featured music from both Damien Rice and The Smiths, two of the musical projects from the last fifty or so years that X detested with a vigor bordering on bloodlust—and in it Clive Owen and Julia Roberts are having one of the greatest arguments he’s ever seen in a movie, and Julia Roberts is asking Owen why he wants to know something about fucking somebody else or whatever, and Clive Owen screams “COS I’M A FUCKING CAVEMAN.” That’s how you make a movie, X thinks, smiling, not slow shots with Natalie Portman being the weird girl, not jerk off jokes between males, but real heartfelt human anger.
They both looked up at X when he entered and gave the appropriate nods, but the mood he was in that’s all he could stand for. He walked straight for his bedroom and sat at the desk—really just a circular glass table with his computer, and several books atop it—pulling the manuscript of St. Vitruvius from behind the laptop and setting the parts he’d finished transcribing to the left of the computer—probably only thirty double-sided pages out of a hundred and fifty or so—and put the much larger stack of work still needing done on the right.
The work of writing a novel manuscript at first was always rather sweaty for X. During the summer, tucked away in his father’s basement, he worked on an old typewriter and could let himself become a bit manic, to the degree that at times he would have his headphones on, and his body would dictate its own actions and he would sit there moving around and hovering closely into the page he worked on to scrutinize it terribly, then pull back when he’d added another page to the mounting pile and take the biggest breath of his life, feeling full again. Those were the pleasant days and nights.
The necessary horror it seemed to take to write anything worth its salt could never quite deter X from trying. Yet still, after finishing work—every time—a slow, creeping, always unexpected depression befell him and he seemed to have no choice in the matter or its possible resolution. He’d heard of artists with apparently good lives—Stephen King comes to mind, maybe—and couldn’t conceive how to manage it. There is, and this has been proven through years of the same, same, same, an inherent abrasion with real substantial creativity and living a wholesome, well-wrought life amongst the people you love. Does this mean that art equals misery? Perhaps not, but when Elizabeth Gilbert publically denounces perceived flaws in the lives of artists like Norman Mailer, or Hemingway, because they were so laden with sadness, she also disregards that their legacies have already—in only a half a century for Hem, and less than half a decade for Mailer—paid for themselves twice over. Does art require one to be hurt, and shat on one’s entire life? X doesn’t necessarily think so, but does an inherent ability to endure the blows life tends to dish out ten fold to people that challenge any and all social norms to create real work heighten one’s chances for longevity? Perhaps. He’s no longer sure about much, but X would like to believe.
Those days to be an island was a near impossibility. And as such X moved through life, and moved into the living room, to watch several episodes of Californication with Warren and Emily, while they all talked and joked about the nightmares of their days, and the severity with which they all planned to approach points of escape the following weekend.
X ran into an old friend from the writing program named Carl before his class that afternoon, and the two of them had a discussion about the arduous nature of X’s mental state.
“It’s just tough to see, man. It’s almost blinding, thinking about life that way—life without these—but even the doctors gave the stuff a shelf life…I’m just starting to think maybe I’d see more if I weren’t taking anything.” They were sitting neath one of the statues in Grant Park, it depicted a man atop an angry warhorse, above his head he hoisted some country’s flag or other. Carl had long hair, ponytailed—was a poet, primarily—and dressed how you’d imagine a deathly-skinny college-aged coffee shop waiter in 1995 dressed: baggy pants with rips in the corduroy, band shirts depicting such groups as Circle takes the Square or The Mars Volta. He was good, an earnest fellow, and though at times his passions ran deeper than X was willing to go publicly, he still admired Carl a great deal.
“Shit man, I don’t know. It’s up to you, you know? For me, I’ve always been kind of hesitant to advocate medication as a treatment for depression. But I know you, I know that you’ve dealt with this stuff before, that you know yourself—hell, that you know more about depression than I might ever hope to know—so all I can say is that either way, I hope you keep your head afloat. I hope that whatever decision you make feels like the right one for you, because that’s what matters, not my opinion on behavioral meds.”
“I guess I’m just scared. My family doesn’t really have anything to do with the decision anymore, you know? They’re all in different places, dealing with different shit, and for once the decision regarding this stuff is kind of up to me. I mean I’ve been on this medicine for what, like three years now or something? At least on some kind of medication for three years, and I sort of wonder what life would be like without it. I’m interested in breathing once as me, you know? I mean shit, I guess I believe in anti-depressants, and like you said, I don’t want to get into a discourse over whether or not they work, because I think in the severe clinical cases they serve a purpose; but for me, as a writer, as a fucking student, as a young man, I really worry that I’m overflowing my head with these chemicals and I’m going to come to regret it…”
“Well then, do what you want to do. But you promise me something, okay?” He looked at X with large, emphatic eyes.
“What’s that Carl?”
“If you start thinking about killing yourself, or about leaving, or about stopping caring or any of that shit, you call me first, alright?”
“I can do that.” And already the seed was planted. Already X knew that he wouldn’t call him, or anyone should anything come up that left him despondent all over again. He knew it; knew the likelihood of his forthcoming misery, however X also knew that somewhere inside, what he was doing was right, and it was all enough to keep him going that afternoon, keep his mind reeling and thoughts afloat until he was able to go home that night to flush the medication.
Grant Maierhofer is the author of various things. All of them should largely be accounted for here