Big Little Banana Book
23 August 2017
anal penetration, Art, artist, big dicks, Bisexuality, blowjob, F. Valentine Hooven III, Female Masculinity, Gay, Gay Leather Fetish, Gay Porn, Gay Sex, giant cocks, Homosexuality, Homosexuality as mental illness, Humor, Jack Halberstam, Kake, leather, masculinity, Masculinity Studies, Penis, Pornography, Queer, Queer Pornography, Queer Theory, sexual Education, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual identity, Sexuality, soldiers, Sucking Cock is a Great Way to Spend a Friday Night, The Advocate, The Complete Kake Comics, The Picture of Dorian Grey, The Well of Loneliness, Tom of Finland, Tom of Finland: His Life and Times, Touko Laaksonen, uniforms, Working Class Men
A man goes into a bathroom to take a piss. Another man walks up, whips it out, and starts to pee. The men look at each other’s cocks, smile, and start to fool around. In the middle of their fun another man walks in and joins in, the next man who walks in is a sailor, this is followed by a young student, then a black man in a suit, and finally a biker dressed in rough denim and a sleeveless leather vest. The story ends with all the men fucking butt to butt to butt to butt to butt, and my reader gets it from there. Despite the graphic intensity of this image what is absolutely important about this story, which is told as a series of pictures, is that all the men who are having sex in this bathroom are smiling.
That may not seem terribly important, but for the time this story was drawn out it was not only controversial, it was unprecedented.
I don’t apologize for admitting that I’m a consumer of pornography. And to be perfectly honest, there isn’t anyone living in this contemporary period who should. Pornography has transcended its previous space in society which, until recently, was at the bottom of your dad’s sock drawer or filing cabinets. The days when little boys (and some girls, let’s be fair here) would steal their father’s Playboys and tremble as they turned pages discovering the awesome power of airbrushing has passed, and now generations of little boys (and girls, again, let’s be fair) now have an unlimited supply of images and videos of naked people fucking. Now there’s plenty of discourse about whether this new openness and ease of access to pornography is negatively affecting the population, but that’s for another essay.
I am a consumer of pornography, and while at times this is a fact that can be embarrassing there is one crucial fact that needs to be observed: I watch and consume gay porn because I’m queer and I want to remain faithful to my wife.
It’s taken quite a while to develop the kind of confidence to admit this, both out loud and to millions of anonymous strangers on the internet, but it’s a fact nonetheless. Since I came out I’ve begun to read more and more about bisexual identity, homosexual identity, and more specifically about sexual intimacy between men. My growing Queer library is almost completely dominated by men (phrasing) and one book in this ever-rising mountain of same-sex intimacy has become not only one of my favorite books, but also the most important: The Complete Kake Comics.
Kake, pronounced Kah-ke or cake, dealer’s choice, is the creation of a man by the name of Touko Laaksonen and has become since his early appearance in the 1950s and 60s, and icon of gay and bisexual male culture. With his leather jacket, slim moustache, and black leather cap Kake established a visual ideal from which gay men the world over identified and mimicked in their dress and overall behavior. If the reader has never observed or read any of the Kake comics I’ve provided some images within the body of this essay, some of which are obviously hyperbolic and purely pornographic. I
discovered Kake, and his creator Tom of Finland, completely by accident. I wish there was a dignified way of explaining this serendipity other than “I googled hot guys and look what came out” but, yeah, again, dignity, that’s a thing I don’t possess.
In my defense, however, after discovering the snippets of online content of Tom’s work I managed to track down a complete book on Amazon which I purchased and read. Studying the drawings was entertaining, not just for the obvious perverted reason, but because Tom of Finland manages to illustrate beautiful scenes of men fucking in a wide variety of contexts and locations and each page is beautiful for the perspective and attention to detail. Reading the book I enjoyed seeing these handsome men having fun and enjoying themselves and fucking with abandon because, unlike most of the pornography in the contemporary market, these men looked like they were actually having fun while they fucked. The sex wasn’t about berating your partner, calling him a bitch or a fag, and then relishing in any pain. The sex was just about enjoying yourself.
That, and there’s also lots of gargantuan cocks.
This is a long introduction however to my real focus which is a book that few people will ever actually read. Tom of Finland: His Life and Times by F. Valentine Hooven III is out of print and so it’s unlikely that outside of a few die-hard fans the book will ever be encountered by the casual reader of queer studies. It’s because the book is out of print that I felt compelled to write about it, but also because, as I noted before, Tom’s men are beautiful examples of what sex between men (and sex between people) should look like.
Hooven observes this as he examines Tom’s men:
The Third element of Tom’s art was its sense of humor. For whatever reason, sex and laughter have been linked throughout history. From Lysistrata to Tom Jones to Lolita, the preponderance of the great works of erotica have been comedies and even in the narrower field of hard-core pornography a large number of better works […] combine humor with their graphic depiction of sex. Tom followed
firmly in this tradition and consciously imbued his drawings with a general sense of light-hearted play. No heavy-handed drama, no sense of “the love that dare not speak its name” was permitted to intrude. Even when Tom’s men steal and fight and tie one another up, there is an overall feeling of “Hey, that was fun. Let’s do it again!” (92-3).
It’s a pathetic state of affairs when this paragraph hits a familiar ear. Hooven I would argue accurately sums up the problem of much of the early pornographic writing, or even simply romantic writing, of the time because anyone who has ever read much early queer fiction recognizes that much of it is nothing but queer people mourning their very existence. This isn’t just my own observation, for even queer critics and historians have noted this tragedy in works that are now cannon of queer literature, the most obvious example being Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness.
The novel is a romance that was published in 1928 and told the story of two lesbians, one of which assumed a kind of personality and physical make-up that many would refer to as butch. It’s a mode of being that assumes what some in culture would refer to as “masculine traits” but it retains the gender identification of female. The Well of Loneliness was made a bit of hubbub when it was first published, and in their book Female Masculinity Jack Halberstam observes the gender matter in the novel, while observing this narrative trend:
Both novels [The Well of Loneliness & The Picture of Dorian Grey] depict homosexuality as congruent with some kind of gender inversion, and both depict the subterranean worlds of homosexuals as lonely drug dens filled with moral perversion. […] Some lesbian critics have begun the work of recuperating The Well of Loneliness by referencing it as a brave depiction of butch sexuality that replaces a model of lesbianism as a sin with medical and sociological models of the lesbian as invert and victim respectively. (98).
I could get into a long explanation as to why many of the early queer authors were forced to write about homosexual existence as a morbid affair, but the simplest explanation is the fact that homosexuality was still considered either a vice or else a mental disorder. Many homosexual people could face outright persecution, exile from loved ones, incarceration in mental hospitals where all manner of tragedies including lobotomy and electroshock could occur, and outright death sentences. Is it any wonder then that homosexual life, and sex, was often portrayed by writers as gloomy and miserable?
Taking this knowledge into account Tom of Finland’s work is simply incredible for its time. It’s not just that the art work is provocative and satisfies what is sometimes referred to as “hard-core pornography.” One crucial element makes his work as powerful and dynamic as it is and Hooven explains it to his reader.
But there was one aspect of Tom’s work above all the others that made it unforgettable. This element was the very one Tom worked the harde
st to add to his drawings. It was partly a compendium of the three qualities already mentioned: the sense of humor, the feeling of immediacy, and the more and more blatant homosexuality; but it was more than just a sum of these three. It could be as simple as a smile, yet it was one of the hardest things to draw deliberately; Tom managed to portray it. Namely, his men were unmistakably happy.
Happy homosexuals? That was new! (94).
If the reader is not familiar with the history of homosexual people, this sentence could almost be eyerolling in its sentiment. Current media being what it is, many people might immediately push back and wonder why this presentation was so unique. Hell, just a casual glance through the perverted landscape of Tumblr is enough to make anyone question why would the presentation of happy queer men be so shocking or important? My response to this, dear reader, is exactly the last line of Hooven’s analysis. These happy homosexuals were new.
Queer artists interested in presenting homosexual sex, both in terms of serious art as well as pornography owe their freedom in this capacity to Tom of Finland because the man’s work established a precedent where men could illustrate sex between men as something that was fun. And considering the presentation of sex that often occurs in art this is still something relevant. Watching sex scenes in movies and T.V. shows and even in pornography, most of it isn’t about fun. Sex is often just about scratching an itch, completing one’s sense of identity, showing it as part of a lifestyle, filling an emotional void, or at its worse, proving your virility. There really hasn’t been any presentation of sex as something fun as far as I can see apart from a few obscure artists and Tom of Finland.
In fact, to be honest, the last sex scene I watched on television that made it appear that sex was something fun was the sex between Gabe and Samantha White on the Netflix show Dear White People, or the masturbation scene with Lionel. Both of these scenes show people have sex or masturbating and at the end it’s clear that the act was about enjoying yourself and just having fun.
Looking at my own desire I think this is the reason why I keep returning to Tom of Finland over and over again, because while it is just about the itch of masturbation, there’s always another level in it for me. I want my desire to be something healthy, and I want the expression of it to be something fun. Even if I can’t have sex with another man, if I could I wouldn’t want the experience to be just about proving my virility or enjoying a lifestyle. There should be an honest joy in fucking because fucking is supposed to be fun.
It would be enough to observe that Hooven notes Tom’s approach to illustrating gay men as happy and content, but one other characteristic of his work is noted and catalogued in this biography. The reader will probably observe in the images of Tom’s work an attention to clothes, specifically the way men are dressed in jeans, leather, or military uniforms. I’ll admit freely this is also part of the appeal of these men for me. I’ve noted in several essays that growing up I felt less than fully confident in my masculinity, not out of misidentification with my gender, but because I didn’t feel like I was a “real man.” This still exists to some extent (it’s hard to feel any kind of macho when you spend most of your working hours in dress pants and bow-ties), but part of the fun of my bisexuality has been discovering what kind of man turns me on, and it’s almost always working class men.
These men embody the kind of masculine ethos that I lacked with their denim, callused hands, and their down-to-earth attitudes. And, if I can speak plainly, it’s mostly because they’re fucking hot as fuck.
This image of queer men however was something that, much like images of happy men, were unheard of. Queer men of the previous era were resigned to the “invert” or else the “fairy,” characters who were effeminate, flambouyant, and almost always self-loathing. It should be noted that effeminate queer men were and are legitimate personality types, and while not every queer man subscribes to that label no one should feel bad if they are a queen. Still for many men this gender presentation wasn’t true to their selves and so they found in Tom of Finland’s work a mode of dress that matched their perception of what masculinity was.
From 1957 on, Tom’s Work set up a series of powerfully masculine images for large numbers of gay men. In the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riots and the advent of gay pride, many of those men were no longer satisfied to merely lust after Tom’s men. In the seventies, San Francisco’s “Castro clone” look—Levi’s, boots, and work shirts—swept the gay scene, and gay men began to try to be Tom’s men. Even as the baby-boom gays aged during the eighties, they strove to emulate the Tom of Finland ideal. More and more of them began working out; super-butch haircuts and outfits and attitudes spread in popularity. So Tom’s work in the eighties presented an older but butcher male. In a way, this alteration was a reflection of changes in gay male society that were in turn partially a reflection of Tom’s work in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. (164-5).
I’ve divulged a lot about myself in this essay, and probably revealed aspects of my personal life many people were probably happy never knowing, but after I finished Tom of Finland: His Life and Times I realized that I had to write about this book, not just because of what Tom’s work has meant for me and my personal sexual development, but for millions of men across the world. New generations of gay, bisexual, and queer young men will discover the man’s work and find in his images their own erotic truth. They’ll find images of men that satisfy their erotic interest, and some of them will be so inspired that they’ll pick up a pen and start drawing.
Pornography as a mode of art does not receive a great deal of credit or respect, and studying it as I have it’s pretty clear not much of it deserves credit. Pornography as an art is usually a back-scratcher: it’s designed to take care of an itch and then be laid aside and quickly forgotten. Growing up the way I did, I realize however that pornography was an intimate part of my sexual development and has been for millions of young people. As human beings progress forward into this Information age, online pornography is going to shape the sexual lives of young people and so the work of someone like Tom of Finland is not just an esoteric study, it’s something important to talk about.
If people are going to be exposed to pornography at young ages, it’s important then that they understand what healthy sex is. Looking at the landscape of pornography Tom of Finland’s work is a beautiful exception because it encourages people to be themselves and be happy. Rather than present sexuality as something violent or misogynistic, Tom’s work is just sexual play. It’s appeal to the imagination where human beings can just imagine fun situations that can be repeated over and over again by turning the page and seeing a new angle or a new position. It may be pornography, but at least it offers a healthy view into sexuality.
And, if I can make at least one more appeal, it offers a firm reminder that there’s something about a man in uniform.
All quotes taken from Tom of Finland: His Life and Times were provided from the First edition St. Martin’s Press hardback copy.
NOTE: This book is currently out of print, therefore tracking a copy down for yourself will be difficult…unless you follow the link below to amazon where you can buy a copy. Tom of Finland is just too important to be forgotten
And if the reader would be interested in finding The Complete Kake Comics, you can follow the link below:
My reader may have observed me using the word Queer in place of Gay for most of this essay. I’ve decided that whenever I write about same-sex intimacy between men that I will use queer in place of Gay, not out of a desire of homosexual erasure, but more as a way of leveling the playing field. I’m a bisexual man who prefers the term queer because my desire is pretty open ended. Plus, not knowing the sexual identity of my reader I feel queer provides more of a safety net. Writing out “queer man” is far simpler than “gay, bisexual, pansexual, man.”
If you hate me for this please remember that we’re all united in our love of cock. It is, to quote the great philosopher, just fantastic.
I also found, during research, a link to an article about a film recently made about the life of Tom of Finland. If the reader is interested simply follow the link below:
I also found an article published in The Advocate about the lasting importance of Tom of Finland:
"Go Get Your Fuckin' Shinebox", "wiseguys", Anti-Hero, biography, Catherine Scorsese, Corruption, Crime, Film, film review, Gangsters, Goodfellas, Hastings, Henry Hill, history, Individual Will, Jimmy Conway, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, lufthansa heist, Martin Scorsese, masculinity, Masculinity Studies, morality, Pulp Fiction, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, violence, Working Class Men
There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow men. True nobility lies in being superior to your former self. –Ernest Hemingway
As far back as I can remember, personally, I always wanted to be Chewbacca from STAR WARS. The reason for that was largely simple, nobody ever really fucked with Chewie. Han Solo was the guy all the boys on the playground wanted to be, and I was often regulated to playing Chewie. I didn’t mind this so much because Chewbacca was tall like I was, covered in hair which became more and more true with each passing year, and nobody in the movies ever beat Chewie in a one on one fight. He pretty much just walked around doing whatever he wanted to because who’s going to tell a Wookie what he can and can’t do?
I suppose in this way Ray Liotta and I have something in common, because his character Henry Hill (based upon an actual person) from Martin Scorsese’s opus Goodfellas, expresses more-or-less the same sentiment about being a gangster. The film opens with these lines after Joe Pesci has stabbed a mobster a dozen times with a butcher knife in Henry’s trunk and Robert de Niro has shot the man four times (I counted):
Henry Hill: [narrating] For as long as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster. To me that was better than being president of the United States. To be a gangster was to own the world.
There was a time in my life when I could watch the movie Goodfellas over and over again and never seem to get bored or bothered by it. Part of this was the fact that I was a teenage boy and a high school loser to boot. When you’re the weird kid, and your perceive yourself as the weird kid, and that perception only further influences your dress, behavior, and attitude, and people around you perceive it, and puberty is happening to you like a sledgehammer to the scrotum, darkness tends to be something you gravitate towards you. Then again, I’ve always found morbid topics interesting. Being a kid I would look at horror movie covers and memorize the names of killers because there was something cool about being close to that darkness. I think this is the best explanation of why Goodfellas, and Pulp Fiction before it, appealed so much to me.
On one side note I find it bothersome that Pulp Fiction is one of the films that changed my life and I still haven’t gotten around to reviewing it yet.
Goodfellas didn’t stumble into my life, it was handed to me by my tenth-grade English teacher. She and I would usually talk before class because she was funny, she had great insight, and I guess she saw something in me. She originally introduced me to Stephen King, giving me her water-damaged copy of The Green Mile, which lead me to other works by King and secured my desire to become a writer. But at some other point she told me to find a copy of a movie called Pulp Fiction. I rented a copy of the movie from Hastings (#restinpeace) and watching Tarantino movies I started also trying to find interviews with the man and a name kept popping up: Martin Scorsese.
Goodfellas wasn’t the first Scorsese film I saw, I believe the first one I watched was either Mean Streets or Taxi Driver. But Goodfellas kept popping up, usually alongside Raging Bull as Marin Scorsese’s supreme cinematic achievement. Not long thereafter my parents gave me a copy of Goodfellas and Braveheart for Easter and I watched it and disappeared.
I have yet to watch a Scorsese film that is not good. Even his first major film Mean Streets, which is obviously rough since it’s his first full movie, is extraordinarily good. Scorsese as a director was brought up under a documentarian tradition and so whenever he makes his films he tries to simply capture the human being’s honest behavior. Rather than tell a narrative emotionally or personally, he allows the characters and people to perform their own arcs, and Goodfellas is probably his best demonstration of this outside Raging Bull. The story is about a man named Henry Hill, the child of an Irish/Italian marriage and that lineage is important. He grows up in a poor neighborhood watching the cab-stand across the street where the “wiseguys” or gangsters hang out wanting to join their world. He eventually makes his way into the organization and the rest of the film follows him living the life of a gangster until he eventually has to leave the life for the sake of his survival.
The movie, while it follows multiple characters, centers on Henry and he narrates his life and thoughts first person as if analyzing his behavior for the audience. Part of the miracle of the film is that this structure could feel obvious or overdone, but it never does. The film sucks you in and holds you close to the material while Henry observes the realities of Gangster life. He notes early in the film about the benefits of such a system:
Henry Hill: [narrating] For us to live any other way was nuts. Uh, to us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean, they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.
In an earlier scene he mentions something similar:
Henry Hill: [narrating] One day some of the kids from the neighborhood carried my mother’s groceries all the way home. You know why? It was outta respect.
Henry eventually is caught for drug trafficking and has to sell out his friends Paulie and Jimmy Conway, and the final scene offers Henry’s summation of everything he learned from the experience, and the final conclusion is as revealing as it is disturbing:
Henry Hill: [narrating] Anything I wanted was a phone call away. Free cars. The keys to a dozen hideout flats all over the city. I bet twenty, thirty grand over a weekend and then I’d either blow the winnings in a week or go to the sharks to pay back the bookies.
[Henry leaves the witness stand and speaks directly to the camera]
Henry Hill: Didn’t matter. It didn’t mean anything. When I was broke, I’d go out and rob some more. We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges. Everybody had their hands out. Everything was for the taking. And now it’s all over.
Henry Hill: And that’s the hardest part. Today everything is different; there’s no action… have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food – right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody… get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.
Henry’s final speech reveals a bit of Scorsese’s ultimate aesthetic goal which is to get the viewer to observe how the Goodfella lifestyle has infected Henry and how, even after everything he’s seen and done, he still longs for a life of crime because the benefits of such a life seem far better than the average day-to-day lifestyle of real people. Now this isn’t a novel observation, dozens of critics have noted that part of the success of the movie is this very realization about Henry, and many have noted that the appeal of the film is the way the characters suck you into the reality and world almost making you want to stay inside that world yourself. Almost every person would love to live a life where they don’t have to work, they can take anything they want, and just generally live and behave without worrying about reprisal.
With this being the case there doesn’t appear to be much room for me to come in and offer up any new material, my reader would note, but as always I have to disagree.
The reason I must contest my reader is because there was a time when Goodfellas was a movie I loved to watch, but over the last few years I’ve stopped watching it as much. It’s not that I no longer love the film, I still consider it one my favorite movies of all time, and, to be honest, I’d watch it before just about most of the films currently being released. But since I’ve started maturing emotionally, and puberty no longer holds my gonads like a vice, the appeal of that world and reality has dimmed.
I lead a very privileged life, but the desire to work and contribute something to my world and community is what drives me more than anything, and watching Goodfellas again recently I was struck by how narcissistic each of the characters was. Whether it was Mauri always bitching about nobody paying him, or Henry as a kid noting that he didn’t want to go to school because the Gangster life was far more lucrative. Even Karen observes how this selfishness comes to become, in her own words, normal:
Karen: [narrating] After awhile, it got to be all normal. None of it seemed like crime. It was more like Henry was enterprising, and that he and the guys were making a few bucks hustling, while all the other guys were sitting on their asses, waiting for handouts. Our husbands weren’t brain surgeons, they were blue-collar guys. The only way they could make extra money, real extra money, was to go out and cut a few corners.
[Cuts to Henry and Tommy hijacking a truck]
Goodfellas is a wonderful film about the real gangster lifestyle, and throughout the movie there are plenty of opportunities for Martin Scorsese to bring in his brilliance for making iconic shots and scenes, and also remind the viewer that he owns virtually every Rolling Stone record. On a side note, Scorsese is the only director I know who can ever effectively use the song Gimme Shelter in a film and make it sound even more amazing than it already does. But I think if you push deeper into the film the entire movie becomes one long documentary and meditation on the impulse of selfishness.
Every character wants to enjoy the riches and agency that being a mobster, or being related to a mobster, brings them. While the characters like Jimmy, Tommy, Henry, Paulie, Karen, and Maurie are driven by their selfishness, Scorsese demonstrates that they live in a system which perpetuates that selfishness and thus reinforces it into a sick kind of normality. It becomes okay to steal, murder, and beat-up innocent people because you have a license to do it.
As Tommy is being led to the house to become a Made man Henry notes this subtly:
Henry Hill: [narrating] You know, we always called each other good fellas. Like you said to, uh, somebody, “You’re gonna like this guy. He’s all right. He’s a good fella. He’s one of us.” You understand? We were good fellas. Wiseguys. But Jimmy and I could never be made because we had Irish blood. It didn’t even matter that my mother was Sicilian. To become a member of a crew you’ve got to be one hundred per cent Italian so they can trace all your relatives back to the old country. See, it’s the highest honor they can give you. It means you belong to a family and crew. It means that nobody can fuck around with you. It also means you could fuck around with anybody just as long as they aren’t also a member. It’s like a license to steal. It’s a license to do anything. As far as Jimmy was concerned with Tommy being made, it was like we were all being made. We would now have one of our own as a member.
People crave to be part of a system or tribe by nature, and if one exists that can benefit them dramatically then they’ll react violently. If I can offer one last quote as justification, Henry observes in the film, shortly after Tommy kills the Made-man Billy Batts (with his infamous “Shine-box” line), that this is the case:
Henry Hill: [narrating] If you’re part of a crew, nobody ever tells you that they’re going to kill you, doesn’t happen that way. There weren’t any arguments or curses like in the movies. See, your murderers come with smiles, they come as your friends, the people who’ve cared for you all of your life. And they always seem to come at a time that you’re at your weakest and most in need of their help.
The easiest attack made against Goodfellas as a work of art is the fact that there is so much violence in the movie, but that violence has tended to obscure the real art that is behind it. The same goes for the first-hand narrative structure of the movie which has been reproduced ad nauseum in far too many movies that are trying to be clever or else just bad rip-offs of Scorsese’s work. Goodfellas, as it exists, tries to show how the gangster lifestyle can infect people and lead them down a path of self destruction. Henry, from the time he’s thirteen, sees the gangsters and their “freedom” as more of an opportunity than participation in society. Instead of trying to find a job, work hard, and make something of himself, he chooses crime, and while he succeeds for a while, it’s ultimately his undoing and he almost winds up whacked because of it.
Scorsese’s genius is showing these people, these characters, and getting the viewer to ask themselves are we really seduced by this freedom, or after watching this film do we stop and realize that there’s nothing truly glamourous about it. It’s a violent, narcissistic society that feigns community for the sake of personal gain. And apart from the great music, it almost always ends in disaster.
I still love Goodfellas, and I still love watching Goodfellas. What’s changed is that I no longer see these characters as any kind of anti-heroes. They’re just selfish-bastards dressed up in nice suits. Though this last point does make me reconsider being a gangster only because it’s hard as fuck to find a decent tailor.
I didn’t get a chance to mention it in the essay, but part of the appeal of Goodfellas for me is seeing Martin Scorsese’s mother play Tommy’s mother. It’s impressive to watch the woman not only handle her own alongside actors like Pesci, De Niro, and Liotta and not even bat an eye, but also, if you watch the scene carefully, steal the entire scene.
And if you don’t believe me here’s the actual scene:
And Scorsese himself talking about it:
Africa, African History, Apartheid, biography, Biography as Craft, Book Review, Born a Crime, Born a Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood, Father-Son Relationship, fathers, Feminism, history, Hitch-22, Humor, Jim Henson: A Life, Jon Stewart, library card, Masculinity Studies, memoir, mothers, Politics, race, racism, Racism is not logical, Satire, sex, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, South Africa, The Daily Show, Tolstoy, Trevor Noah, Tyler Public Library, violence, What Mothers Give Their Children
I’m pretty sure my mother is using me for my library card.
Ever since I started working for the Tyler Public Library my eyes have opened to the pettiness of local government, and the pain that can sometimes be public service. The Tyler Library is a significant one: we have one of the few full time Genealogy/Local History rooms that is open full time in East Texas. Along with that we serve a wide variety of people who come in looking for books, DVDs, access to computers and the internet, and a regular series of public speaking events in which people come to listen and watch professionals talk on topics ranging from Rose growing to the future of Nuclear Arsenal Diplomacy on the international stage. The problem with the library, like almost every library I’m sure, is funding. Because only the city of Tyler’s taxes go to fund us, people who live within the county but not the city have to pay a membership fee. My reader may be wondering what this has to do with my mother or Trevor Noah’s wonderful autobiography Born a Crime. I’m sorry, I like to talk, but I’m getting to it.
My mother lives in Smith county but she lives in a small town called Noonday which barely caps 400 people. She then, like many people in Smith county, complain about the fact that their tax dollars are being taken but they still have to pay to use the library. In her defense, she understands the money situation since I’ve explained it to her, but often I have to smile and carefully explain to patrons that the county refuses to pay us and therefore we have to charge a fee to stay in the black. Few people really understand this because of the unspoken maxim that I agree with in principle: Libraries should be free.*
But my mother likes to read and I like my mother, she’s got good taste in music and pays my cell phone bill, so I decided to arrange a system in which I would check out books that she wants to read and loan them to her. The system has worked so far, but as I noted from the start I think she’s enjoying this arrangement because every time I see her she’s asking for another book.
This little anecdote though does serve a purpose because as I noted before this essay is my response to Trevor Noah’s autobiography Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. I didn’t know about Trevor Noah at all until he got in trouble for an offensive tweet, and to be fair that was really only because he was taking over for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and people were looking to disrupt the institution at this supposed moment of weakness. Stewart left, Noah began, I stopped watching for a while. It wasn’t that he wasn’t funny, it just that he was new and I’m one of those obnoxious people who has to settle into things slowly. Still I enjoy The Daily Show and Noah himself has begun to really demonstrate that he’s made The Daily Show into his own and so I’ve become a regular watcher again, and in fact, in the last few months I’ve come to adore Trevor Noah as a comedian, and even more as a writer and Born a Crime is largely responsible.
I checked the book out from the library (my desk is literally right next to the New Books area) and read the first two chapters knowing instantly that my mother would love this book. I know it sounds ridiculous or absurd to suggest that I have anything in common with a celebrity (especially one who’s seemed to have a far more interesting and eventful life than I have), but reading these first two chapters I realized that Trevor Noah and his mother had a relationship that mirrored the relationship my mother and I have. A strange closeness that fortunately isn’t Oedipal.
I told her to read just the first two chapters.
I didn’t get the book back for a week.
Noah’s biography took me completely by surprise because I’ve read the autobiographies of comedians before, and most of them, if I’m being charitable, aren’t worth reading. It’s not that they aren’t funny, it’s just that most of them are just opportunities to track their individual development and show where they’ve come from. I know there’s merit and real humanity in such works, but the problem is too often these books are also just a chance to rap and ramble about everything and anything that comes into their heads. Noah’s book is different however, because his story chronicles not just his awkward puberty and childhood, it also tackles the issues of race, political corruption, domestic violence, crime, and poverty while still managing to be entertaining and well written. Trevor Noah’s very existence was a crime because, growing up in South Africa during apartheid, being the child of a black woman and a white man, he was a crime against the state.
Noah’s book often explores the sheer absurdity of apartheid in small segments between the chapters of the book. One passage which is one of my mother’s favorites, discusses the labeling of Chinese South Africans as black. He explains:
Apartheid, for all it’s power, had fatal flaws baked in, starting with the fact that it never made any sense. Racism is not logical. Consider this: Chinese people were classified as black in South Africa. I don’t mean that they were running around acting black. They were still Chinese. But unlike Indians, there weren’t enough Chinese people to warrant devising a whole separate classification. Apartheid, despite its intricacies and precision, didn’t know what to do with them, so the government said, “Eh, we’ll just call ‘em black. It’s simpler that way.”
Interestingly, at the same tie, Japanese people were labeled as white. The reason for this was that the South African government wanted to establish good relations with the Japanese in order to import their fancy cars and electronics. So Japanese people were given the honorary white status while Chinese people stayed black. (75).
I still can’t read this passage without cracking up. The stupidity is just mind-boggling. Then again the United States Constitution originally labeled black people as three fifths of a human being so I suppose it’s important to remember that racism is a worldly stupidity rather than just a regional one.
One of the joys of reading Noah’s biography is the fact that, as a comedian, his retelling of one of the most truly despicable institutionalized race segregationist policies never becomes dramatic, hyperbolic, or soul-crushingly depressing. Instead of levelling on and on about the atrocities of apartheid, Noah tries constantly to present the small absurdities in his life while observing how they would relate to the wider national community. And in this right, I would argue, Noah succeeds far better in demonstrating the ineffectiveness of apartheid, because while concerted political efforts were what ultimately brought down such an odious system, it’s the power of subverting the institution through laughter that a real victory is achieved.
If you can laugh at something, it’s difficult to take it too seriously.
There so many levels to Noah’s biography in terms of race. One of the most prominent is also one of the hilarious and tragic scenes in the book. Noah describes his early infancy when his mother and biological father tried to take Noah outside for activity.
Where most children are proof of their parent’s love I was the proof of their criminality. The only time I could be with my father was indoors. If we left the house, he’d half to walk across the street from us. My mom and I used to go to Joubert Park all the time. It’s the Central Park of Johannesburg—beautiful gardens a zoo, a giant chess-board with human-sized pieces that people would play. My mother tells me that once, when I was a toddler, my dad tried to go with us, and I ran after him, screaming, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” People started. He panicked and ran away. I thought it was a game and kept chasing him. (27).
This passage is funny upon first reading, but by the second or third time I’m reading it I wonder (while still laughing) the pain of not being able to even be seen in public with your child.
Before I start the maudlin crap though I really do want to acknowledge how well written this biography is. I’ve observed before that it can be difficult to find truly great biographies. A.N. Wilson’s Tolstoy is always the first that comes to mind, Che: A Revolutionary Life by Jo Lee Anderson comes next, Jim Henson: A Life by Brian Jay Jones (Also look up his George Lucas), Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens, I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, and recently I’ve begun Life by Keith Richards. This list may seem to contradict my statement before about the scarcity of truly great biographies but in fact it only reinforces it. These books are products of a careful craft (pardon the alliteration) that tries to leave the reader with a real sense of the person under discussion, and rather than try to chronicle every detail of a person’s existence, it instead tries to offer the heart and personality in all its beauty and flaws.
Reading Born a Crime I feel like I know Trevor Noah’s personality, rather than just his facts.
And if I can offer one last sentiment, what is beautiful about the book for me is how much I come to recognize that the pair of us do have one thing in common: we grew up under strong women. The impression of Born a Crime that lingers for me is how Patricia Noah helped shape Trevor into the man he became. One quote is enough to see this because I return to it over and over again:
I grew up in a world of violence, but I myself was never violent at all. Yes, I played pranks and set fires and broke windows, but I never attacked people. I never hit anyone. I was never angry. I just didn’t see myself that way. My mother had exposed me to the books she never got to read. She took me to the schools that she never got to go to. I immersed myself in those worlds and I came back looking at the world a different way. I saw the futility of violence, the cycle that just repeats itself, the damage that’s inflicted on people that they in turn inflict upon others.
I saw, more than anything, that relationships are not sustained by violence but by love. Love is a creative act. When you love someone you create a new world for them. My mother did that for me, and with the progress I made and the things I learned, I came back and created a new world and a new understanding for her. After that she never raised her hand to her children again. Unfortunately, by the time she stopped Abel had started. (262).
This passage is beautiful to me because it perfectly summarizes the home I was raised in, or at least the philosophy that governed it. Both of my parents grew up in homes where physical abuse was not controversial, it was just a common means of discipline. I was raised by parents who disagreed with that idea, who instead wanted their children to see that violence doesn’t check anything, all it does is inspire more of itself. Violence becomes a kind of cancer eating at the people who perform it and suffer from it until there’s nothing left. If anything, this passage seems like the most important in the entire book because ultimately this biography centers on Noah and his mother.
The relationships between mothers and sons can be complicated, because if men profess too much admiration or devotion to them the accusation of Oedipus complex becomes a loud prison sentence. Anyone who needs much evidence of this simply look to the “Martha” controversy of Batman Vs Superman. But mothers are important for a young man’s development because she becomes the first relationship. Mothers, the good ones anyway, teach their sons emotional strength and then eventually how to interact with the world. They teach them the proper ways to speak and act towards women. They teach them about the importance of family. They teach their sons love, and what that word really means against the supposed images and representations of it that crowd the media. This last lesson is important, the most important, because as Noah’s biography demonstrates that love is what helps develop people into the individuals they are and instills in them their ideals and moral constructions.
I had a wonderful mother who encouraged me to create and love rather than destroy. That guidance has led me to where I am today. Likewise, Noah had a loving mother who suffered and endured a pain that would break most people, but through it all endured and taught her son that essential quality.
Born a Crime isn’t just a story about racism, it’s a testament to a mother’s love for her son. And his success is only further proof that she probably deserves some kind of official “Mom of the Year” award, because you don’t get shot in the head and live through that and not receive any kind of accommodation. Spoilers.
Since writing this essay one of the library staff explained, rather effectively, that nothing in life is “free,” and in fact if you look at the way libraries work since their founding, they are most certainly not free. Books, internet access, and DVDs don’t magically appear from thin air and so libraries have to receive fuding of some kind, usually from taxes and grant funding. I’m writing this out because this attitude of “Libraries should be free” is bullshit and it needs to stop being perpetuated.
All quotes from Born a Crime were taken from the Spiegel & Grau First edition hardback copy.
For the record I don’t mind if my mother uses my library card. Shegave birth me and continues to support me financially, philosophically, emotionally, intellectually, etc., and reads whatever I write here. She also, from time to time, recommends great books. So thanks Mom, you rock. Love you.
Batman, Benedict Cumberbatch naked sunbathing, Bisexuality, Book Review, Comics, Essay, Evil Bear Man, Gay, Gay Batman Sex Fantasy, Gay Men Comics, Gay Porn, Gay Sex, Homo-Social Relationships, Homoeroticism, Homosexuality, I Like It Like That, I Like it Like That: True Stories of Gay Male Desire, Justin Hall, masculinity, Masculinity Studies, Michael Fassbender, Naked, Penis, Pornography, Queer, Queer Sex, Queer Theory, Sexual Exploration, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual identity, Sexuality, Space, The "Fairy", Writing
I’ll admit that I wanted it both ways. And yes, that is a bisexuality pun.
My regular reader will remember, because I won’t shut up about it, that I’m bisexual. My graphic novel memoir I Like Dick, I Like Vagina, I Like Me is still several years away at this point but that’s only because the publishers fail to see my brilliance and so I languish in obscurity. Because I’m married however, and because my wife and I hold to a “No Sharing” policy, exploring my sexuality is often limited to the wonderfully perverted world of Tumblr or else my traditional outlets, books. There’s a problem on this second front because as I said before I want it both ways, and this time it’s not a pun. I have been, since I started reading works about Queer theory, looking for a book which would explore queer male sexuality while also not being ungodly academic.
Surprise surprise this has been difficult.
Most writing about sexuality between men remains rigidly fixed in academic analysis in which case your spending most of your time reading about Freud or Marxian realities inherent to Postmodern identity politics. The other alternative is pornography, and as I stated before, Tumblr exists and seems to do a far better job at it then most erotic male writers I have read. What has always been missing in book after book of male-male erotica is some level of intellectual exercise. Reading about X putting his dick in Y’s mouth and or anus can be fun, but after a while the characters become archetypal nobodies and I wanted to explore sexuality not just scratch an itch. It seemed then that there wasn’t any book out there where I could really get another person’s perspective on their sexuality in a way that was physically and psychological satisfying.
Until Half Price Books. This chain has largely been responsible for whatever emotional development I’ve had with my sexuality because unlike the bookstores in my home town of Tyler, Texas, they carry (unashamedly I might add) an entire section dedicated to gender, sex, and sexuality books. On yet another of my family’s recent pilgrimage to Dallas I headed for the LGBTQ Studies after cleaning up in the dollar section, and my cart filled up within a space of five minutes. Most of my books were studies of queer male sexuality or their history and so when I spotted I Like it Like That: True Stories of Gay Male Desire it was just one of the many books in the pile. It was a few minutes later when I was vetting my pile that I took the time to figure out what I was buying, and after reading just the back cover I knew I had to own this book.
I Like It Like That is not just a collection of testimonials for I’ve read and still own several books like that. Most books about queer men tend either to be outright pornography, or else testimonials about their first time or about their coming out. Books like that are valuable and should be read and studied, but again there was always something missing for me whenever I read them. The way my own mind works I always prefer a work that takes the time to introspect or analyze a condition or situation. The men writing their personal essays are not just describing their sex life, they’re offering assessments and deeper understandings of what sex has meant to them, or how it has changed their life, or shown in what way they have explored or expressed their sexuality. Each essay acts alone and independently from the other, but while reading this book each essay feels like it’s is arranged in reaction to others so at times the book is like reading a group of men talking together about their sexuality. The best part about the collection however is the actual range of sexual expressions that are understood and discussed. One article titles Tom Selleck’s Mustache is one man’s realization that he possesses a fetish for mustache’s in general and therefore kissing men with mustache’s is his favorite erotic act. Another essay, which is in fact a comic strip, titled Amanuensis is a short story about a top who helps two husbands who are both bottoms. Big Black Daddy-Dick, or The Joys of Being Fetishized is really everything the title suggests as a middle aged black man explores the pleasure derived from others who look at him and his dick in a kind of worship. Bathhouse Desires covers the territory of a man visiting a bath house for the first time and feeling lost in lust and desire. Straight Guy Fetish explores a personal essay of a man caught in a one sided relationship with a straight man. And finally Evil Bear Man is a comic strip about a man who works as a fetish escort and has sex with his boyfriend in front of his client dressed up as Batman and Robin.
This last one, for the record, is my favorite only because I couldn’t stop laughing while reading it.
This basic list serves to demonstrate what an odd and wonderful book I Like it Like That really is for the reader interested in exploring libidos. Reading these essays feels so personal because too often the subject of sex is something that is hushed up or hidden. But something powerful happens when a writer opens their secret heart and shows you something. To wit, observe just one passage from the essay The Weight of My Desire:
I like men. And I like that I like men. But more than that, I like that you like them too. […] Sometimes, I think, the only thing greater than my desire for a man is my desire for his hunger. Do you know what I mean? His yearning to touch, or be touched by, another man. His willingness. His lust. His lack of inhibition. The thought that maybe just the book of another man’s smile is enough to get him hard. That perhaps even you might think of me and quiver. That I might hold the power to do that to you. Then I could pull you close, press your forehead into mine, and gaze into your eyes as we fuck. And in your eyes I will see that you like it. I will hear it on your warm breath and in the wet sound of your tongue on my skin. We are not that different, you and I. Your balls ache the way mine do. (207-8).
It’s incredibly painful to me how long it took for me to be able to read the first two sentences and agree with them. For the longest time I hid behind the random imitation of the “fairy” whenever the issue of same-sex intimacy between two men was brought up. Whenever I would discuss Benedict Cumberbatch or Michael Fassbender I would become fay and limp-wristed and raise my voice to sigh dreamily. I still sigh dreamily after Michael Fassbender for the record because…because…Ahem
Ahem. And Jason Moma is…
…well…yeah. The point is though while reading this passage I recognized the similar physical sentiment, “your balls ache the way mine do,” but I also recognized how much I had grown into my own comfort of my sexuality. Being attracted to another man wasn’t funny, or at least wasn’t just funny. It could also be real, and it could also be something to enjoy about myself.
Having said that though humor is important especially when dealing with sex. That’s why Evil Bear Man is without doubt my favorite essay in the collection. The fact that it’s also nothing but comics doesn’t hurt either.
The essay is about a fetish escort who gets paid by one of his clients to dress up as Robin and “break in” to his apartment so his client can pretend to be a villain by the name of Evil Bear Man. Evil Bear Man’s evil scheme? To force Batman and Robin to fuck.
With the help of his boyfriend, who plays the role of Batman, the pair of them eventually play out the fantasy for the client who enjoys a nice, quick wank. The description is enough to make even the most patient and open-minded reader to stop and ask the question: why should I be giving a damn about this. With the incorporation of images this moment sounds like nothing but pornography? But looking back over the essay again I can counter this immediately. Pornography is designed to titillate and arouse the viewer and/or reader of the work. Evil Bear Man works to occasionally arouse the reader, but often Justin Hall, the writer and illustrator who’s work I have appreciated in other books such as Boy Trouble and True Porn, breaks the serious erotic’s to show small moments of humility. His boyfriend complains about the utility belt, on the way over a kid tells him that the Robin outfit looks gay, after the client has paid he hopes the pair of them don’t laugh too hard and of course they do, and at the end the pair of them eventually continue to fuck in the outfits while the onomatopoeias of BLAM, WHAM, and KER-POW pop up between the phrases “Take it.” Anyone who watched the old Adam West Batman like I did surely remembers this and having them subverted, or perverted if you prefer, was funny and charming.
The point is while the reader observes this small tale they explore the fantasy of the client and observe how the escort and his boyfriend eventually perpetuate it, both together, and also to the reader. The individual reading the book I Like It Like That, is most likely someone who will derive some kind of erotic interests from the essays being presented and so there’s an invitation to not only observe the little distractions that can take place during sex (you always wind up placing your weight on their hair for some reason), but also to see if maybe some part of you isn’t also slightly turned on by watching Batman and Robin fuck.
I’ve never had a Batman fetish myself, and I still don’t. However, studies of tumblr have demonstrated that even without my participation this fantasy will continue into the future.
I’ve probably said more than I need to in order to the pique the interest of the reader who’s willing to sink $20 into a nice slim little book of erotic essays, but as always my point in these writings isn’t just to review books. Anyone who wants a quick review should try Goodreads. These essays are about my own exploration and so I prepare for my contester who interrupts me to ask, “Why should I bother picking this book up? I’m not gay, I’ve never had any gay feelings. Why should I waste my time reading about a bunch of gay men having sex?”
To this criticism I really don’t have much of a defense. If you’re a straight guy this book probably doesn’t offer much for you. I’m sorry but that’s where it stands. Though it should be noted that there is a small populace that call themselves straight who engage in same-sex activity, but that’s for a later essay.
Buying the book, and taking the time to write this out I wasn’t really writing for straight men. I wasn’t writing for gay men either. And in fact I wasn’t writing to any men at all, simply myself. As I noted before, my bisexuality is an odd creature because it can only exist in an odd erotic space. Because I don’t want to cheat on my wife, but because I also am unwilling to hide my, what Alison Bechdel calls in her brilliant graphic novel Fun Home “Erotic Truth,” this books is a real gift. It affords me the space to explore my sexual feelings towards other men without violating my marriage or without making me feel guilty.
And, along with helping me find my sexual self, it also affords me a few opportunities to think. Such as the following passage from the essay The Truth of His Nakedness:
It wasn’t about sex. Until it was. But it took me years to realize that nothing had really changed. These days, my nakedness is usually reserved for sexual situations, but that only reinforces the point—the erotic space is the same. The erotic space is the space of unavoidable truth. The erotic space is who I am.
In the end, all there is nakedness: two bodies coming together, sharing their common humanity, their naked vulnerability, the ultimate truth that we are not alone. (184-5).
The essays in I Like it Like That, much like this review/reflection of the entire book, finds its heart in the preceding passage because everything about these essays is about nakedness. “Naked” as a word always suggests vulnerability and by exposing your body, and by extension your desire to another person there is always a risk. Writing these words, and publishing them on the internet for all the world to see is a risk because there will always come those who will reject my desire, and by extension my person in general. I’ve listened to horror stories from some of my friends in the queer community and so I do not write and publish this essay without some reservation. It would be a mistake though to suggest that this was purely about the actual act of sex, because these essays prove sex is not only about the act of inserting something up an anus, into a mouth, or into a vagina. Sex is about a space in which desire is allowed to breath and be and the only way for a person to figure out what they “like” is to find some kind of space in which to work with.
Queer men exist in a wonderful space in which to explore their desire, and I’m happy to contribute to it in any way I can, even if it’s just suggesting a book through this shitty blog.
Looking over these words I’ve reminded myself that the reason I’m able to be and exist is because of the agency and space I possess. Others aren’t nearly so lucky. I’ll probably never have sex with another man, and while there is some sadness in this declaration there is still a happiness in recognizing I have enough “space” to openly acknowledge it’s still something I would like.
And if that “space” should ever include Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch, well, I mean, I wouldn’t complain. Would you?
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, apples & peanut butter, Author Vs Voice Vs Persona, Book Review, Cetology, Charlie Rose, Consider the Lobster, Conversation, David Foster Wallace, David Lipksy, Derrida, Dostoyevsky, Guys, Imposter Complex, Infinite Jest, Interview, Literature, Masculinity Studies, Moby Dick, Personal Development, Philosophy, Postmodernism, prose, public intellectual, public perception of writers, Reading, reflection, Sentimental Novel, television, Ulysses, Writers, Writing
It started really with Charlie Rose. In the mornings my wife would usually wake up before me, and in fact she still does, in order to get to school and so given the fact that I had no classes to teach and my job wouldn’t start until around 11 or 12, I would usually have the mornings to myself to putter, drink my tea, eat my apples and peanut butter, and watch videos or read before I left. I usually couldn’t read and eat at the same time and so I pulled up YouTube on my phone. However, I really don’t like wasted time, and so these early morning moments seemed like a chance to grow intellectually so I would watch Charlie Rose interviews because Charlie Rose usually hosts substantive interviews. I watched Robin Williams, Gore Vidal, Bill Maher, Quentin Tarantino, Benjamin Netanyahu, and even Mr. Rogers. I can’t honestly say if my brain got any bigger, but watching those videos while I ate my apples and peanut butter reminded me how underappreciated the Interview format is in our culture.
In the queue was a man by the name of David Foster Wallace, a writer I’d read before and largely ignored, and so like most of the choices in my life that lead to books, I picked the video largely because I had heard rumors and speculation and read something somewhere, and even after the interview I wasn’t terribly impressed. In fact, to be frank, the man bothered me mostly because of the way he discussed academics in a kind of pejorative tone.
I can’t explain the Wallace explosion. Like Orwell before him, and Christopher Hitchens before that, David Foster Wallace just seems to be dominating my consciousness and I honestly believe it has something to do with the fact that I’m beginning to abandon any and all hope that my life will have any real connection to academia. I also wonder why, whenever I have these intellectual storms in which I become consumed with reading the entire works of single author or subject that I can never get myself to dig into the histories of Rome or Ancient Greece. There’s a stack of books with names like Livy, Tactitus, Heroditus, Plutarch, Cicero, and Ovid that sit literally right behind my laptop while I write, yet consistently the books that wind up consuming my time and energy are those written by men, and not enough women, living in the 20th and 21st century.
Perhaps I’m just doomed to be another soulless, shameless Postmodernist. More’s-the-pity.
Still, the name David Foster Wallace buzzed in the background of my head and so when I had coffee with a friend a few weeks later I snapped up a copy of Infinite Jest, ordered two copies by accident of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, bought Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, bought Consider the Lobster, and finally bought a copy of a book that, while it wasn’t written by Wallace, was still half written by the man and largely about him.
Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, apart from having an incredibly long title, is a book that shook me. I was tempted to write some bullshit about the book shaking me “to the core,” and while the sentiment is accurate I distrust sentiment when trying to convey how much a book can affect you. I was used to David Foster Wallace being a writer who always somehow managed to convey thoughts about society, art, literature, and writing that always left me profoundly altered and adrift in intellectual storms that would cloud my reality until I wrote about my thoughts about his thoughts and how fucking true they were, but David Lipsky’s book gave me something far more shocking and I use that word carefully.
David Lipsky’s transcribing of the various conversations he had with Wallace shows me not only a great writer, but a deep human being who seemed to suffer from most of the same shit I did. Later in the book when Wallace and Lipsky are talking they discuss college.
[Lipsky:]…You said being a regular guy was a great strength of yours as a writer, I thought it was smart, but what did you mean by that?
[Wallace:] I think—I had serious problems in my early twenties. I mean, I’d been a really good student. I was a really good logician and semantician and philosopher. And I really had this problem of thinking I was smarter than everyone else. [Reason for faux] And I think if you’re writing out of place where you think that you’re smarter than everybody else, you’re either condescending to the reader, or talking down to ‘im, or playing games, or you think the point is to show how smart you are.
And all that happened to me was, I just has a bunch of shit happen in my twenties where I realized I wudn’t near as smart. Where I realized I wasn’t near as smart as I thought I was. And I realized that a lot of other people, including people without much education, were a fuck of a lot smarter than I thought they were. I got—what’s the world? Humbled, in a way, I think. (214).
Besides these two paragraphs in my paperback copy of the book is an arrow and above it in cursive is written the phrase “My Life.” It’s a pathetic confession but I admit that I often felt during my undergraduate career this combination of superiority and inferiority, and while part of it is simply growing up and suffering through the necessary reduction of the ego, I recognized early on that the kind of education I had received in grade school as well as home, far surpassed what most of my friends had experienced. As such I enjoyed being the smartest kid in class, that is until a new student came down the pike who understood Derrida, and another who knew what the Sentimental Novel was, and someone else who had actually read Dostoyevsky, and so on and etc. and so I quickly developed what is known as “imposter” complex, the belief that you don’t belong somewhere because the people around you seem to be significantly smarter than you.
Eventually I settled into a comfort with my intellect because I realized that I will never know everything and so it was better to keep growing and be, as Wallace noted, humble.
Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is written as a long interview between David Lipsky, who is a novelist but also a regular reporter for Rolling Stone, and David Foster Wallace. The book is specifically an interview for the promotion of Wallace’s book Infinite Jest which had just been published and would, in time, become part of the American cultural consciousness as a kind of American answer to Ulysses. This combination isn’t made in jest…bad joke, it’s an earnest assessment having read Ulysses. The book stands at 981 pages long, but throughout the text Wallace has numbered words and sentences that lead back to end notes some of which range from a single sentence, to multiple paragraphs, to, in one unfortunate instance, well over thirty pages. And so the book stands at actually 1079 pages, 98 being endnotes alone. It is considered an avant-garde masterpiece, and one of the great “challenge” books in the American literary canon if not the world. Entire blogs are dedicated to deciphering the book, and scores of essays exist about the book and the myth that surrounds it.
For my own part I am working slowly through it, but while I did I decided that I would read Lipsky’s recorded interviews to see if I could find the man behind the whale. That’s a personal metaphor for long difficult books by the way. The lovely aspect about Although of Course You End up becoming Yourself is that the book does reveal these two men as realistic human beings as one early passage demonstrates:
[Lipsky:]You’re the most talked about writer in the country.
[Embarrassed to hear myself talk that way.]
[Wallace:]There’s an important distinction between—I’ve actually gotten a lot saner about this. Some of this stuff is nice. But I also realize this is a big, difficult book. Whether the book is really any good, nobody’s gonna know for a couple of years. So a lot of this stuff, it’s nice, I would like to get laid out of it a couple of times, which has not in fact happened.
I didn’t get laid on this tour. The thing about fame is interesting, although I would have liked o get laid on the tour and I did not. (11).
It’s hard, as a man at least, to condemn this impulse because I’ve studied biology, and rock stars, and I recognize how fame influences conscious choices. Lipsky immediately after this notes that rock stars certainly get this kind of notice and perks of fame, but they observe that writers tend to miss out on this kind of treatment. There is a tendency on the part of men to enjoy their fame and this translates into having sex with multiple women because that’s a sign that you’re the dominant male or that you possess some kind of power, but looking at this passage what’s important is how human Wallace appears. Most men, if they became famous, might expect the “groupie effect” and so the note of the missed chance reminds the reader that Wallace was every bit a man.
That isn’t diminishing his legitimate genius, I’m just noting the man would have enjoyed getting some while on tour, and this impulse isn’t necessarily crude, it’s just what seems appropriate from a man who tried to be down to earth as he could be.
Lipsky’s book is not just conversations about missed opportunities, or lack thereof, for sex that makes Wallace become real, it’s also for the fact that he, much like myself, grew up in a house that valued education and books. Another passage shows this while he’s discussing his home life.
[Lipsky:] Environment in house? Lots of reading?
[Wallace:] Yeah. My parents—I have all these weird early memories. I remember my parents reading Ulysses out loud to each other in bed, in this really cool way, holding hands and both lovin’ something really fiercely.
And I remember me being five and Amy being three, and Dad reading Moby-Dick to us (Laughs)—the unexpurgated Moby-Dick. Before—I think halfway through Mom pulled him aside and explained to him that, um, little kids were not apt to find, you know, “Cetology” all that interesting. (49).
I legitimately laughed out loud at this passage, because I have read Moby Dick before, and while the book isn’t always dry, the “Cetology” chapter is literally nothing but a taxonomy of the various species of whales known by whalers and biologists up to that time. If that sounds fascinating but painfully boring that’s because it is, and don’t forget it’s Melville. This brief scene by itself wouldn’t necessarily bring out Wallace’s humanity, but a few sentences down he says:
But I remember, I remember because there was some sort of deal about Amy, Amy got exempted from it, and was I gonna be exempted or not? And I remember kind of trying to win Dad’s favor, by saying “No, Dad, I want to hear it.” When in fact of course I didn’t at all.” (49).
I suspect every child has that moment of recognition. Our parents give us so much of themselves and their time and patience and energy and so as kids we recognize this and try to give something back even if it’s just our own time and attention. My little sister and I would sometimes note that whenever dad talked about economics we would smile and nod, but much like Cetology in Moby-Dick we were left rather bored. Likewise growing up my mother read numerous books about spirituality, and not being a terribly spiritual person myself listening was sometimes a bit of a chore. Still I listened to my parents because they gave me so much emotional, financial, and spiritual support it seemed fair on my part to listen to stuff that they found fascinating and important in their life. Regardless there was a moment of recognition with Wallace and this is where I’m able to address my contester.
So what about Wallace? He was a hyper-intellectual avant-gardist who wrote incomprehensible novels and esoteric essays about television, tennis, and David Lynch movies. What relevance does his personal life have to do with me? In other words why should I care?
Well dear reader that’s where I have it. During this essay I’ve repeatedly referred to David Foster Wallace as human, or noted that Lipsky’s book emphasizes this humanity. This is because I believe in some fashion, the man has become an ideal rather than a human being. And if I may take it a step further, writers in general tend to receive this treatment, their works becoming some kind of totem from which people form a kind of abstract intellectual worship. The novels of Ernest Hemingway are not just stories of moody men drinking, fishing, hunting, drinking, etc., they are in fact looked to by some as wellsprings of masculine spirit. Likewise, the poet Emily Dickinson is revered with a passion that is at times inspiring and at others horrifying, but along with her work comes the image of the recluse. Dickinson is not afforded the opportunity to be a human being, she is the cartoon character of the shut-in, a woman who was so plagued by social anxiety that she had to lock herself away in her study writing poems that no one would ever read. The conflict with this image, as well as that of Hemingway, is that it is devoid of real being. Writers are people, flawed people, but people who possess passion and desire, and Lipksy’s book shows Wallace in this way.
Wallace is often painted as my imagined contester paints him, as a hyper-intellectual who was above human beings and solely existed in thought, but reading Lipksy’s book a different image of Wallace appears: a man who wants his passion and ideas to be understood or appreciated while he shares them with others while also trying to be a normal guy as more and more hype builds around him.
In one passage the pair of them are standing outside of an airport in Chicago and David begins discussing the problem of art in this time period:
[Wallace:] We sit around and bitch about how TV has ruined the audience for reading—when really all it’s done is given us the really precious gift of making the job harder. You know what I mean? And it seems to me like the harder it is to make a reader feel like it’s worthwhile to read your stuff, the better a chance you’ve got of making real art. Because it’s only real art that does that. (71).
On the very next page he continues this idea:
[Wallace:] The old tricks have been exploded, and I think the language needs to find new ways to pull the reader. And my personal belief is that a lot of it has to do with vice, and a feeling of intimacy between the writer and the reader. That sort of, given the atomization and loneliness of contemporary life—that’s our opening, and that’s our gift. That’s a very personal deal, and here are seventeen ways to do it. (72).
Without sounding arrogant, I recognized a similar thought when I first read this passage. Part of that was simply because I spend most of my time reading, writing, thinking about reading, thinking about writing, and wondering what is possible in writing, or, more importantly, what can be accomplished in writing, and sometimes why I spend so much time thinking about writing and not actually writing.
I may sound arrogant, or desperate to sound clever, but I do believe a great many readers read lives of quiet desperation. Novels are mass produced that follow formulas and give the same material, and before my reader believes that I am now about to rail against mass produced paperbacks I promise that I am not. My aim is not to mock readers who willfully ingest such material, my aim is point a finger at the writers. Why is there no desire to play with language and try for something more?
I want to think that perhaps my great collection of essays will actually amount to something accomplished in words. Writing is my solace and my passion, but reading Wallace I was reminded again that it leaves me wanting for an opportunity to find something new. It’s not enough to tell a story about how I discovered a copy of The Stranger in my wife’s childhood bedroom and began reading it before describing its larger significance. The writing has to mean to something or do something that impacts the reader just as much as the material.
I want, and there is the card game. My writings are ever and always words thrown out to some unknown being in the world who stumbles upon this space, and when they read my words they discover that I have written sentences and thoughts not to myself but to others. It’s a cheap trick, but one in which I’ve developed a voice around.
Lipsky’s book could easily become just a long list of beautiful quotes that a casual or superficial reader will ingest to spit back out in conversations to sound smart, but in many ways the style of the book is unlike anything published that I have read because Lipsky manages to present me with the real human being that was David Foster Wallace. The interview format can lead certain writers to just kiss an individual’s ass and then get one or two good quotes from it, but the interactions between Lipsky and Wallace are not just the back and forth exploration of a career. These two men discuss music, publishing, relationships, fast food, movies, smoking, realties of the magazine market, and within every conversation there are moments Lipksy notes that change the dynamic of the text. Whether it’s being interrupted by an announcer three times at an airport, smacking Wallace’s dog when it gets too feisty, sharing a dirty joke, or just noting and reproducing Wallace’s Midwestern accent. These moments coalesce so that the interview becomes two people trying to find and understand one another not only because one needs the other to promote his book and the other needs a publication credit to help his career, it’s about finding each other’s humanity.
Near the end of the book Wallace seems to provide a final summation as they discuss why people are ugly towards one another in this contemporary period:
[Wallace:] It’s more like, if you can think of times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think its probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we’re here for is to learn how to do it. [Spits a mouthful into cup] I know that sounds a little pious. (292-3).
I’ll disagree with the man, suggesting only that pious may be incorrect, but at least virtuous, even if that word has fallen upon hard times. Wallace has secured a legacy as one of the great minds and writers of his generation with only a few essays and a few novels, and while that greatness is certainly one of the reasons I find myself warming to the man it’s this last bit where I really recognized his intellectual ability. The mark of a great mind is not necessarily making grand, sweeping generalizations, but small observations that lead to real insight.
More than any of that though, Lipsky’s book is at the heart of my recent Wallace explosion, for while it was some unknowable serendipity and influence that lead me to Infinite Jest, it was the social connection between a few of my friends that lead me to Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, and reading this book has helped me revaluate that tenuous connection.
Is it possible to feel another human being so truly and completely, feeling as if you might be so bold as to suggest that you know that person’s heart and soul but for a moment? The end result of Lipsky’s book is the impression of a long conversation that, at the end which seems almost like saying goodbye, you knew another person’s heart.
Few books bother leave such a stamp on a person’s soul, though many try, and we’re all left wanting for such moments.
bow-ties, Buddy, Can You Spare a Tie, Creative Non-Fiction, David Sedaris, death, Domestcity, Elbert "Bo" Smith, erectile dysfunction, Eric Idle, Essay, funeral, Homosexuality, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, Literature, Masculinity Studies, Memento Mori, Michael Myers, mortality, My skeleton who's name is Harold, National Coming Out Day, Old Faithful, sex doll, Sexuality, skeleton, Skull with Cigarette, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, Van Gogh, When You Are Engulfed In Flames, Writers, Writing
When I was younger, I honestly can’t remember how old I was when my grandfather passed away, maybe twelve or eleven, I attended his funeral and did everything in my power to avoid looking at the body. It was open casket, and while I had been to at least one funeral before I head never actually seen a dead body, let alone the body of my grandfather. I still remember the night he died because I remember Dad answering the phone regularly, his mother calling him with updates. The old man had had one his legs amputated, some disease that was never fully explained to me, and when I sat in the dark and heard the phone ring one last time I knew he was gone. My grandfather was, and is still is a model of masculinity for me. He was a fantastic dancer, chain smoker, unashamed gun owner, stern Democrat, and for at least forty years he welded oil pipes. I’d known him before the stroke, before his mind had been wiped clean of every word he’d ever learned over the course of his life, before he’d been reduced to pissing in plastic cups and shitting on a padded toilet seat that made it a bitch to pee whenever we went down to visit. I didn’t want to look in the casket. Not because I was afraid of death, but because I wanted to be alone when I did it.
For me it was about strength, it was about facing the old man and having a small intimate moment. My grandfather was a man I loved and respected and I waited patiently by a bouquet of flowers that felt and smelt like chalk until I saw nobody by the body. The herds of old ladies decorated in pastel greys and pinks, there might have been pinks and if there were what kind of outlandish pimp dresses in pink to a funeral? I walked up to the casket, ready to say my goodbye when my grandmother jumped me out of nowhere. She and three women I didn’t recognize or know and care for at that moment shoved me along carefully up to the casket. The figure appeared. I stood my ground. I looked in.
His suit was the blue color I associated him with. It wasn’t a passionate color you could taste with your tongue, it was the blue of a man who spent his life working. His hair was stiff and pointed up, and the color was off. His hands were tucked above his waist, a position he had never and would never assume. But it was his skin and lips that I remember most. His color had been creamy peach with wet leather, his Cherokee blood always coming through, and his lips had been swallowed up by the color appearing only moderately pink. Now his skin looked like the wrong foundation and his lips were purple, clamped shut.
I broke. Seeing the old man I just broke. My grandmother, as if feeding off of my emotions began to cry herself and said something along the lines of “oh honey,” before her crowd surrounded me. I managed to shake them off and march down the aisle until I was in the front room. People watched me but I didn’t care, I tucked myself into a corner, stuck my head between my legs, and wept. They’d turned my grandfather into a sex doll.
I bought myself a copy of David Sedaris’s book When You Are Engulfed in Flames because the cover was a Van Gough painting, Skull with Cigarette, and I love skeletons, and I love David Sedaris, so the two of them together promised only brilliance. I know buying myself a book for Christmas and expecting my parents to wrap it sounds selfish and monstrous, but in my defense Barnes & Noble was offering free gift wrapping, plus everyone in my family does it. My father usually gets three presents for Christmas because he’s purchased some fancy tool that’s taken up half the space in his garage and so the lingering gifts are usually a NCIS DVD and some book about Naval warfare. The reason for buying the book though had less to do with skeletons than it did the author. I’d read Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls and written a review of the book and not long thereafter I began collecting the man’s work to complete my library with every intention of reviewing them as well. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk came and so did Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim too, but for whatever reason the muse didn’t call, she’s such a drama queen, it was her sister and it was only once, but when I finished the last essay in the collection, The Smoking Section, I knew I couldn’t pussyfoot out this time.
But what does the book have to do with my grandfather and a shit mortician’s make-up job? About every essay in the collection of When You Are Engulfed in Flames has some element in it that addresses the issue of death; each story is designed to address or hint at mortality and, since it is David Sedaris, absorb the absurdity of the event that spawned the realization. Sedaris’s style of self-immolation, coupled with ego padding make this exercise as hilarious as it is morbid.
Take for instance a passage from the essay Monster Mash:
Even as a child I was fascinated by death, not in a spiritual sense, but in an aesthetic one. A hamster of a guinea pig would pass away, and, after burying the body, I’d dig in back up: over and over, until all that remained was a shoddy pelt. It earned me a certain reputation, especially when I moved on to other people’s pets. “Igor,” they called me. “Wicked, spooky.” But I think my interest was actually fairly common, at least among adolescent boys. At that age, death is something that happens only to animals and grandparents, and studying it is like a science project, the good kind that doesn’t involve homework. Most kids grow out of it, but the passing of time only heightened my curiosity. (110).
For the record I never dug up any pets when I was a kid, but I did have a similar morbid curiosity with death that eventually spiraled into a fondness for Heavy Metal. A habit of mine was stealing away to the horror section of Hastings to look at the DVDS that promised an endless sea of mutilation and blood. It was never that I wanted to kill any of these people, but there was some contentment in being so close to death. It was an abstract concept that, like Sedaris explains, only happened to people older than myself. Looking at the movies, and other gruesome pictures similar to it, was a way of learning early of my mortality so that later, when I began to recognize more and more that death happens to everyone, I was prepared. Thanks Freddy Kuregar. Actually fuck Freddy Cruegar, Long Live Michael Myers!
The reader may get the impression that Sedaris’s book is only about the morbid end of life, but this isn’t the case. Sedaris is able to execute a wide variety of deaths both literal and symbolic. In his essay Buddy, Can You Spare a Tie he describes his tendency to dress himself like “a hobo,” meaning that his selections of clothes are not avante garde so much as ”take what you can get.” In the essay his father recommends a bow tie:
My inner hobo begged me not to do it, but I foolishly caved in, thinking it couldn’t hurt to make an old man happy. Then again, maybe I was just tired and wanted to get through the evening saying as little as possible. The thing about a bow tie is that it does a lot of the talking for you. “Hey!” it shouts. “Look over here. I’m friendly, I’m interesting!” At least that’s what I thought it was saying. (60).
I thought much the same thing myself. I own five or six bow ties, however they aren’t the GQ modeled cloth masterpieces that I don’t know how to tie. In fact they’re the kitsch mass produced bowties decorated with moustaches, the Gryffendor logo, the Union Jack, and, my personal favorite, the black and white polka dot all of which are held on the body by a black elastic band. My bow ties don’t scream out culture and sophistication when I wear them, they scream out to people “Hey! I’m interesting! Ask me something!” They’re also a rejection of the standard tie I was forced to wear to chapel every Thursday for twelve years of my life. Last year during National Coming Out Day I wore that polka dot tie as well as a royal purple button down shirt, a solid black vest, and a black kilt as I handed out free condoms and candy to passing students who laughed. The kilt was the main element of my outfit and, much like the bowtie, it was supposed to be odd and strange and funny and weird. I wanted people to laugh at me and enjoy themselves and the bow tie was the bow on my beautiful package and I wish I hadn’t just written that.
This thought entered my head as I read the preceding quote, but a page later my world melted in an existential panic.
It was my friend Frank, a writer in San Francisco, who finally set me straight. When asked about my new look he put down his fork and stared at me for a few moments. “A bow tie announces to the world that you can no longer get an erection.” (61).
Imagine my panic and terror as I pictured every women and every man staring at that bow tie as I handed them condom with a smile on my face. The thought that drifted through their heads as they saw the connection of the bow tie and the rubber. Did they laugh at me then or later? Did they craft malicious visions and mockeries in their minds picturing me explaining to some girl or my wife that this never happened to me? Oh god they were smiling, what did they think of me, what did my wife think of me? And this of course kept me reading as Sedaris went on to perfectly explain this panic:
And that is exactly what a bow tie says. Not that you’re powerless, but that you’re impotent. People offer to take you home, not because you’re sexy but because you’re sexless, a neutered cat in need of a good stiff cuddle. This doesn’t mean that the bow tie is necessarily wrong for me, just that it’s a bit premature. When I explained this to my father, he rolled his eyes. Then he said that I had no personality. “you’re a lump.” (62).
My bow ties sit in the back of my closet next to an aluminum skeleton. I haven’t the heart to wear them for a while.
This skeletons though brings me to my favorite essay in the collection Memento Mori. His partner Hugh wanted a skeleton for Christmas and so he hunts for one, he finds one originally but the store won’t sell it claiming it’s their mascot, and when Hughs opens it the first thing he does is hang it in their bedroom.
I assumed he’d be using the skeleton as a model and was a little put off when, instead of taking it to his studio, he carried it into the bedroom and hung it from the ceiling.
“Are you sure about this?” I asked.
The following morning, I reached undder the bed for a discarded sock and found what I thought was a three-tiered earring. It looked like something you’d get a craft fair, not pretty, but definiitly handmade, fashioned from what looked like petrified wood. I was just holding it to the side of my head when I thought, Hang on, this is an index finger.
I don’t think of myself as overly prissy, but it bothered me to find a finger on my bedroom floor. “If this thing is going to start shedding parts, you really should put it in your studio,” I said to Hugh, who told me that it was his present and he’d keep it wherever the hell he wanted to. Then he got out some wire and reattached the missing finger. (153).
This story seemed to possess a special relevance for me because everything I write is in front of a skeleton, or really behind it. My wife has had, ever since she was a little girl that growled at people, a fascination/reverence of skulls and skeletons, so much so that when she turned sixteen she asked her parents for a complete one. Now an actual human skeleton can run anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, so the model she got was fake but still somewhere around $180. The bones are obviously fake; when the light shines on them they have a dull plastic sheen and a few “teeth” are “missing” giving the appearance that this plastic person was a meth addict in their pathetic plastic life. She’s glued a moustache to the face, and when I first met him, for it is a he, he wore a purple beret. My wife informed me that his name was Harold.
I know some men that would have been put off by a skeleton right next to the door when they walk in, the kind of woman that keeps a skeleton summons images of witches severing penises with their fangs before boiling them in iron pots to high pitched cackling, but I didn’t. Growing up watching Tim Burton films on repeat ad nauseum I didn’t feel afraid or put off by Harold, in fact I loved the guy. I would greet him every time I entered her apartment. After we got married there was a small conflict of where to keep him in our house, but it didn’t take long for him to wind up in my office.
The similarity, or that moment when I recognized a similar development in my own life had a certain charm, as did his later examination of the fact:
It’s funny how certain objects convey a message—my washer and dryer, for example. They can’t speak, of course, but whenever I pass them they remind me that I’m doing fairly well. “No more laundromat for you,” they hum. My stove, a downer, tells me every day that I can’t cook, and before I can defend myself my scale jumps in, shouting from the bathroom, “Well, he must be doing something. My numbers are off the charts.” The skeleton has a much more limitec vocabulary and says only one thing: “you are going to die.” (154).
When I look at Harold from sitting in my desk I see his ass first, or really his hollow pelvis and coccyx. Harold ass doesn’t tell me that I’m going to die, but really that my fat ass is one day going to be gone, and that’s a troublesome thought as I sit in front of my computer, literally surrounded by books, writing and sending out essays hoping somebody somewhere will give a shit and read them. I’ve taken to using Harold as a kind of Coat rack. He wears my hat, my scarves, and holds my Barnes & Noble Catch-22 bag for me in one hand. Very well dressed gentleman he’s become these days. Whenever I get home the first action I perform is shuffle to my office, say hello to him, and say something or other before returning him his hat. ‘Here you are sir, thanks for letting me borrow it.” Harold’s become the man in the office, occupying and watching after the books in my absence, and it’s come to the point that, if she tried, my wife would never be able to take him back.
Harold doesn’t just tell me, remind me, that I’m going to die, he reminds me that I only have a certain amount of time before I do. That work needs to be done, but that it doesn’t matter anyway because you can only ever appreciate the complicated riddle of a skulls smile until death stops being something that happens to grandparents. Staring at a skeletons ass really gives you perspective in this life.
These musings and memories are not meant to be indulgent but rather to be illustrative of Sadaris’s ability to capture the little moments and decisions in his life and note the absurdity of them. When You Are Engulfed in Flames tackles the day to day experiences that remind the writer of death, whether it’s the complete death of individual existence, or else the death of someone he knew and was. It is a platitude, but each morning a person is reborn and given an opportunity to do and be more than they were before, but as is often the case we simply fall into a pattern of life because our desire for comfort and familiarity takes precedence. Death is, as Camus and countless other observed, the ultimate absurdity, or as Eric Idle put it best, “for Life is Quite Absurd, and death’s the final word.”
I’ll end with one last observance. In the collection is an essay entitled Old Faithful, which also appeared in The Best American Essays of 2005. It begins with a small and ominous line:
Out of nowhere I developed this lump. (228).
One of my history professors, who I later discovered to be bat-crap crazy and despised by many of the people in her department, shared to me one day that she never thought she would become that old woman always discussing her health problems. It was a small matter-of-fact statement, not really conversation, but it was eye opening. No friends of mine discussed their health because, apart from hang-overs, nobody really suffered any problems. Illness, like death, only happened to old people. But Sedaris uses this ailment to touch upon a different direction. His partner Hugh offers to lance the boil, and after opening it up, dry heaving, and cleaning it they wind up back in bed together.
When my boil was empty, he doused it with alcohol and put a bandage on it, as if it had been a minor injury, a shaving cut, a skinned knee, something normal he hadn’t milked like a dead cow. And this, to me, was worth at least a hundred of the hundred and twenty nights of Sodom. Back in bed I referred to him as Sir Lance-a lot.
“Once is not a lot,” he said.
This was true, but Sir Lance Occasionally lacks a certain ring.
“Besides,” I said. “I know you’ll do it again if I need you to. We’re an aging monogamous couple, and this is all part of the bargain.”
The thought of this kept Hugh awake that night, and still does. We go to bed and he stares toward the windows as I sleep soundly beside him, my bandaged boil silently weeping onto the sheets. (238-9).
Looking at this passage I think about the fact I’m about four and half months away from my second wedding anniversary. Edith and I have not been married long, but we were engaged for three years before we tied the knot. Our relationship is nowhere near an aging monogamous couple, but I’ve found already a real comfort in the companionship, and looking at this essay I think about the likeliest scenario of such an event. My wife wouldn’t lance the boil, nor would she offer to, but I know as soon as I mentioned it she would disappear into her phone and within an hour she would find the diagnosis, home-made recommendations for the proper way of treating it, three doctors in town I could go see the next day, and she would carefully, and lovingly, pester me into submission before my masculine façade bullshit could take over. And if that didn’t work she would raise one eyebrow and my spine would melt.
When You Are Engulfed In Flames doesn’t prepare the reader for death, so much as it readies the reader to recognize the strange beauty of life and its oddities. There are few books that possess a wondrous assortment of experiences and observations about mortality that can still make you laugh. Sedaris’s book will most likely find its way next to Johns across American, for often his work is found in the humor section beside MAD books and biographies of Amy Poehler, but the reader that picks the book up hoping to find something to read while he squeezes out a turd will most likely be bumfuzzled and left wondering at the skeleton on the cover smoking his cigarette wondering what’s so funny.
When You Are Engulfed In Flames can be found at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Hastings, and Wherever books are sold.
I really wanted to squeeze this quote in somehow but I hit the 3000 mark and I didn’t want to push it too far. It seemed a crime though to review this book and not give the reader, arguably the best paragraph written in the entire work. Please enjoy:
Shit is the tofu of cursing and be molded to whichever condition the speaker desires. Hot as shit. Windy as shit. I myself was confounded as shit, for how had I so misjudged these people? (167).
Speaking a true vulgarian, Sedaris doesn’t just write this passage, as physically manifest truth in written words, not to mention validate much of my personal vocabulary.
**Writer’s FINAL NOTE**
I realize the reader may get the wrong impression by my introduction, that there is a lack of reverence for my grandfather, after all GOOD grandchildren don’t compare their grandparents to sex-dolls. Well allright cry-babies, if you’re so damn sensitive here it is, one of my favorite photos of the man.
Elbert “Bo” Smith on the right, Portrait of the Writer as a young yet incredibly handsome man on the left.
My grandfather was a good man and I miss him everyday. If can’t get the joke then fuck off.
A Matter of Life, Atheism, biography, Christianity, Clumsy, Comics, Darth Vader and Son, Darth Vader's Little Princess, Entomophobia, Father-Son Relationship, fathers, graphic novel, Jeffrey Brown, Masculinity Studies, Parenthood., religion, superhero comics
You’ve probably never heard of Jeffrey Brown. The independent Comics industry is a field few people, particularly English professors steeped in “The Canon,” would realize is hosting one of the most important artistic avenues since Easy Rider hit the movie screens in 1969 and started a film revolution in Hollywood. The difference between these two movements is that while one received the benefit of advertising space and the public interest, like I said at the beginning, few people have probably heard of Jeffrey Brown.
You might have spotted his work already. Darth Vader and Son, as well as Darth Vader’s Little Princess have been commercial success due largely for the fact that one only has to slap the name STAR WARS on a product and you’re guaranteed a clientele (I’m saying that as a fan of the franchise). Both of these works play on previous knowledge of the foibles of the STAR WARS universe, but also upon an individuals’ personal experience being a parent, particularly a father. What shines through in these two small books of one liners is an honest pathos. While the writer of this blog has in the past been highly critical of that Rhetorical device in previous essays, the use of pathos here is unapologetic and designed to be the chief strategy in the formation of an aesthetic.
I’ll try to stop sounding like a fucking NPR special and get to the damn point.
I picked up a copy of A Matter of Life over two years ago while I was going through a binge in Comics studies. At the time it was my life’s work to make sure that I would spend the rest of my life reading comics and teaching their merits to comic students. Graduate school has a way of softening some aspects of self-proclaimed destiny and since then Comics, while I have not fallen out of love with them or their potential for students, have become supplementary material—But the dream lives on nonetheless. What struck me immediately was the nature of the story.
Brown has in the past, through such works as his graphic novel Clumsy, been unafraid to write autobiographical narratives. And when I say unafraid I do mean it. Brown will, in his work, show us the dysfunctional relationships between men and women, faulty sexual behavior that leads to heartbreak, the rather poignant awkwardness that is male masturbation, and all of these little oddities build up through a broken plot structure, if you really can call Brown’s style a plot structure at all, to lead us to a sentimental observation concerning the oddity of our existence.
In A Matter of Life Jeffrey Brown narrates his growing up in a Christian household, but from the very first page it’s clear that the book is not about a deepening of Faith:
When I was little I believed in God. At least, I think I did. At some point I realized I didn’t believe. And I hadn’t in a long time. If ever. It doesn’t mean I don’t believe in something bigger than myself. (6-10).
This brief passage is spread out over five pages of pure blackness broken only at the end by a page of pure black with the image of the Sun merging into the frame from the right side. This of course then leads into Brown as an adult giving his son a piggy back ride and from there we see his phobia of bugs. The simplicity of presentation and the movement of subject to subject is subtle, and while at times the movement of the plot feels very random, such as the interruption of god’s presence in nature to the scene in which a foot long tapeworm erupts from a dying Cricket during Bible Camp, each moment of Brown’s life is included because it works towards the aesthetic goal. The back of the graphic novel describes the books: an autobiographical meditation on Fatherhood and Faith.
Brown is not an Atheist, a steady reader of the blog should know by now what that is, and he clearly believes that there is some force in the universe outside of human understanding. Brown tackles the objection some might have to that outlook when trying to describe the state of death to his young son who objects to the notion of nonexistence. His son’s response of, “I can FIGHT dying” is one of the most endearing passages of the book.
What struck me the most however about the text was the conflict of admitting to a lack of belief in this age. Now granted it is no longer a punishable offense to admit you do not believe in the existence of god, but when your father the acting priest of a small community, that choice becomes pretty damn difficult. Brown doesn’t hold back the awkwardness and even confesses in one instance that he lied about his lack of faith to an elderly woman. Why? Who knows? In our day-to-day lives sometimes taking up the mantle of bravery just doesn’t feel like it’s worth the trouble, or what another person needs from us in that particular moment. But still Brown doesn’t ever step back from his lack of faith, and instead meditates on how it has affected his life.
The reader may be disappointed by the end of the graphic novel which seems abrupt and unfinished, but taking a step back and really studying the work, this is an unfair critique. Some have attacked Brown by saying his work is scattered or has no plot. This may be true but hat is not a weakness. As it is advertised on the back of this slim volume, A Matter of Life is a meditation through art. Brown is piecing together his life to determine some inherent meaning. Ultimately what we arrive at is that Brown is a father, a husband, a son, and finally a man just trying to understand who he is, what he believes, and who he wants to be.
Some might immediately object as to why they should care? This is not the Avengers, or Batman, or Wonder Woman that have solid plot lines designed to lead us through a great and epic storyline. In fact, dear reader, you say this sounds boring as fucking fuck. Why is this book worth my time when I can by three superhero graphic novels and enjoy my afternoon unmolested by such deep questions?
For this very reason Brown’s work stands out to me as a fan of comics. While I love superhero comic books, and, as of this writing, can’t wait to see Age of Ultron, I respect the medium of comics as an art form and the purpose of art should be for people to ask themselves the very same questions posed above. Yes, Iron Man is awesome and witty, but in our day-to-day lives do we possess such wit? If we do not, why not. Does Iron Man ever stop to ask what his purpose is in the grand scale of the cosmos? What is the point of drawing the line between evil and good in the face of a force like Galactus?
For the record I’m not trash talking superhero comics. I love them a great deal and have an entire bookshelf dedicated just to them. But If comics are to be taken seriously they must experiment with their form more than just launching three new books a month in which Batgirl becomes sidekick for three issues or Black Widow get’s an actual superpower. A real experimentation has to take place where we reassess our understanding of what the form can do and where the artist fits into that experiment and A Matter of Life does just that. It reduces the grandiosity found in so many other works and centers us back in mundane life. Our lives at time seem to have no coherent structure but assume meaning over time and reflection. A Matter of Life is unlikely to become a film or blockbuster, but it is worth your time.
You don’t need God to be good.
This precedes a three pages tangent in which Brown helps an elderly man who has fallen in the shower. He doesn’t lift the man up or use super-speed to change time so the event doesn’t take place. He offers the man his time and his support. We may not be superheroes, but the little acts in our lives determine our character more than what we believe in.
For those of you who were waiting for an explanation for the title:
As for your next question, the front cover shows Brown and his son standing in a museum, most likely one dedicated to science if there is a Tyrannosaurs Rex exhibit, while the back shows an empty church. My guess is this a rhetorical gesture to show that while the faith in the church is gone, emptied from his life, there is still the avenue of fatherhood which now assumes more importance in his life.
Just a thought.