April 22, 2007

Tormenting Sparrows in Vain


Not too long ago, I was watching a documentary about Hubert Selby, Jr., the author of The Demon, Requiem for a Dream and Last Exit to Brooklyn (among other things).

     Selby, who died a couple years back, had been a huge influence on me when I was a much younger man—especially Last Exit, with its sprawling, brutal, nihilistic portrait of addiction, hopelessness and blue collar depravity. It seems he influenced plenty of other people, too.

     In the documentary, novelist, screenwriter and former junkie Jerry Stahl (Permanent Midnight) recounts his first meeting with Selby, in which Selby—a former addict himself—told him “You know, once you get off the drugs and the booze you find out how dark you really are, because those buffers are gone.”

     Selby had said the same thing to me back in 1988, first time I spoke to him. I guess he knew all about young writers who felt it was necessary to be fucked up all the time in order to write convincingly about fucked up things. Maybe he felt it was his duty to wise them up a bit.

     There certainly is a lot of truth in what he says. So much so, in fact, that I haven’t given up drinking. I know full well what I was like before I started drinking, and it was pretty creepy.

     Recent weeks, and some long, empty days, have reminded me how dependent I am on buffers. When left unguarded, unoccupied, undistracted, un-numbed in some way, my brain turns ugly. I get a little funny, in an unfunny way. Immobilized by dread and cruel trains of thought. Banal as it may sound, I get to feeling like Dostoevsky’s underground man again—isolated and obsessive, tormenting sparrows in vain. Human contact (with the exception of Morgan) be it in person or on the phone, becomes excruciating. Suddenly I can read (well, “read”) first-person accounts of desperation and supposed “madness,” like Celine and some of Selby’s novels, and they seem perfectly reasonable to me.

     Which is why, I found, I’ve actually been collecting buffers over the years—many of which I didn’t even realize I had been using as buffers.

     The booze is obvious, as is the Tegretol. But there’s also the music that’s always playing in the apartment, and the movies I watch every night. If I don’t have a movie lined up, and can’t decide on something to watch, my stomach starts to knot and my head begins to throb. Likewise at night, if I don’t have an audio book playing, I lie there in the darkness for hours, a hostage to my own brain.

     Even the exhaust fan that runs 24 hours a day in the window, I realized, is a low-level buffer—just a bit of white noise in the background to keep the complete silence away.

     The best buffer in the world—for me anyway—remains work. And I’m using that word in the broadest sense; anything from washing the dishes to feeding the cat to working on a story or a book. They all keep things at bay for greater or lesser periods of time. The writing’s the best, of course—that’s when everything else falls away, the time glides by, the brain behaves as it should. But even watering my evil, ugly tree will keep me occupied for a few seconds.

     That’s what it boils down to really—the constant hunt for distractions. And that in itself is a race. If I don’t have some project lined up, or don’t get to it early enough in the day, the horror and the bad spirits creep in and I’m immobilized. But if I get something underway, well, they occupy themselves elsewhere. And even if they do take hold, I can at least take sad comfort in the fact that once I start in on that first beer, they’ll be dispelled. (Actually they usually aren’t dispelled until the second beer, but that’s beside the point.) Once I start drinking, however, the prospect of getting any more work done that day is out the window. I used to drink while I wrote, thinking that was the only way to open the brain up, the way the Great Ray Milland describes it in his “balloon” monologue in Lost Weekend. When I was younger I was also convinced that I could only write (ahem) “seriously” if I was profoundly depressed.

     I bought into all the myths, and now they’ve backfired on me. After the first beer, I need to stop working, and if I’m depressed, I can’t write anything at all. Joke’s on me, I guess—but at least I’ve learned my lesson, so far as those two things are concerned.

     It’s all mighty pathetic, I realize, and there are very simple solutions at hand. Sometimes those solutions, though, are damn hard to remember when you’re in the middle of it. I could, for instance, just start drinking earlier if I know I’m depressed and won’t be getting anything done. But I’ve tried that one out in the past, and found that it doesn’t work nearly as well as I’d hoped. Not in the long run, anyway.

     Here’s the thing that gets me—I’ve got nothing to be down about, apart from a brain that tends to misbehave whenever it’s not occupied with something outside itself, no matter how trivial or stupid.

     Last time I talked to Selby was back in 2003, right around the time his final novel, Waiting Period, was released in the States. By this point, his health had deteriorated to the point at which he was breathing with an oxygen tank and could only write about a paragraph a day. He also admitted to me that he didn’t even remember what Waiting Period was about anymore.

     Having read the novel, I can understand wanting to forget it. But as I think back on that admission now, it occurs to me that he no longer needed booze or drugs to buffer him from his own brain anymore—his body and his brain itself were doing a pretty fair job of it.

     Lucky bastard.


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