SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
April 16, 2017

A Tangled Train of Thought Ending, As Ever, in Failure

 

Much as I love gambling, and the idea of gambling, Iíve always been a piss-poor gambler. Never had the shine. Casinos sucker me in with the chime and hum, gnaw on my dry bones for a spell, then spew me back out empty. Went to the track for sixteen years before I hit my first winner. Guess I shouldíve taken the hint when the first horse I ever bet on, back at Philly Park, died in the far stretch. Literally died. Just stopped running and flopped over. Although I canít say Iíve exactly learned anything from my shabby experience, Iíve always stayed away from the lottery, which is by nature a loserís game, and one in which the winners are doomed. Thatís something, anyway.

††††††††††† Still, when I saw the winning numbers from the previous nightís drawing one recent Saturday morning, something smelled a little rancid. The supposedly random spread was a little too perfect, right? Five numbers in sequence, from sixty-one to sixty-five. The odds were beyond the standard issue ďastronomical.Ē Only the fact nobody won convinced me it really was simply a matter of the cosmic randomizer at its usual unlikely business. Either that or somebody fucked up something mighty.

††††††††††† That got me to thinking about the Pennsylvania Lottery scandal of 1980, which has since come to be known as the Triple Six Fix. A couple of inner circle lottery officials, the host of the nightly drawing, a major numbers runner from Pittsburgh, and a few others conspired to make a quick $1.2 million haul by injecting a little latex paint into all the balls, save for the sixes and the fours. When that nightís three-digit winner was six-six-six, no one batted an eye. At least for a couple of days. But you know that devil. A couple of people noticed just how many tickets had been sold for combinations of six and four exclusively, and there you go.

††††††††††† The scheme became the inspiration for Nick Tosches first novel, Cut Numbers. The slim novel came and went in 1988 pretty much before anyone had a chance to notice. I didnít even notice myself until Grinch pointed it out to me, and when he did I immediately snatched up a copy off a Waldenbooks overstock table. Iíd been an enormous fan of Toschesí journalism since the late Seventies, and wanted to see what he could do with fiction.

††††††††††† Tosches began as a music journalist back when music journalism was first coming into its own as a literary form. He wrote for a few magazines back in the day along with Richard Meltzer and Lester Bangs, and was among the very best, tough and cool and razor-sharp. His early books Country, Unsung Heroes of RockíníRoll, and the Jerry Lee Lewis bio Hellfire all had a lasting impact on me. But when he stepped away from music into a much bigger and darker universe, he entered the pantheon. Writing fiction and non fiction alike, he focused on outlaws, mobsters, shadowy power brokers, and the deeply corrupt. He released books on Sonny Liston, Dean Martin, and opium dens, sprawling novels that touched on history, religion, organized crime and the blackest of human impulses. Beyond the breadth of knowledge and exhaustive research down there on the page, his work was always marked by a style that was at once demonic and holy, a flow of prose that was gorgeously two-fisted and smooth and sinister. Among living writers he remains absolutely singular, and perhaps the last in a long line of our authentic literary outlaws. But others have written about him much more elegantly than I ever could, so Iíll shut the fuck up about it, and promise not to bring up Dangerous Dances, his Hall and Oates biography.

††††††††††† Hereís where the brakes lock and I begin skidding toward that stone wall. Thinking on Tosches got me thinking about all those other writers I most admire, an increasingly lengthy list that includes all the usual suspects whoíve had and continue to have a major influence on my way of thinking: Celine, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Mr. Pynchon, the Beats, H.L. Mencken, Norman Mailer, James Thurber, Terry Southern, Flannery OíConner, Tito Perdue, Kurt Vonnegut, Hubert Selby, Jr., Wolfgang Borchert, William Gaddis, Jim Thompson, Dante, Jerry Stahl, T.S. Eliot and my god so many others. But thinking about it that early Saturday morning as I wandered the neighborhood just to wander before the heat became too unbearable, of them all, the one I really wanted to be in realistic terms when I got started in this godforsaken business was Nick Tosches. Most of the others were simply out of reach, writers whose style and deep wisdom placed them on the level of aliens or demigods in my mind. Others had become too well known, had been cursed with either a celebrity or anti-celebrity I had no interest in. But as a workaday writer not much having to worry about the talk show circuit, public appearances or paparazzi, and one in command of such a rich dark poetry, and whatís more one with the freedom and energy to dive deep into researching the rotten pit of the human spirit? That was something to strive for. Sometimes thinking back it feels like I mightíve even had a chance there for a couple of minutes. Two or three minutes, anyway. But a couple of wrong turns, a couple of missed exits, and before long it became mortally clear it was never gonna happen. The industry dried up, the venues dried up, everything dried up. Maybe I simply wasnít mercenary enough or cruel enough. Almost thirty years on now, the best I can hope for is the chance to write a fucking story about a forty-year-old science fiction film for a fucking site aimed at teenagers who refuse to accept the world existed before 2002. I shouldíve gone to mortuary school instead. And now dammit, the brakes are locked and thereís that fucking wall. Like I said, Iíve always been a piss-poor gambler.

 

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