“We are kindred all of us, killer and victim, predator and prey…”
I’m just a magnet for crazy old guys who never shut up, reads my journal entry from September 25th, 2014. Fucking Wright comes around bothering me every day.
I’d learned Wright’s name a month earlier when he was enrolled in a rotation of Phase 3, the re-entry course all inmates are required to take before going home. It’s supposed to prepare us for a smooth return to society—considered a joke by staff and inmates alike.
I’m toward the end of my two-year sentence and will soon be forced to take the class myself, but until I go home in January, I’m assigned to help teach it. I’m what the state calls an IPA, or Inmate Program Associate, eligible for the position because I graduated high school. I get grade-four pay, the highest inmate pay grade in a medium-security prison: twenty-four cents an hour. A can of commissary tuna costs $1.01.
Dealing with guys like Wright comes with the job: standing at the front of a dingy classroom for hours every day, trying to hold the attention of the blank faces staring back. By the end of the first week, all the most disturbed and lonely guys are convinced I’m their friend. They’re wrong, but I feel bad and try to humor them. I smile and nod as they ramble and stutter about society and wiretaps, then walk back to my dorm when the officers call for movement. With Wright, this strategy doesn’t work. He walks back right behind me; we live in the same dorm.
The dorm houses sixty inmates below a high, long ceiling, each of us assigned a cubicle hardly larger than a phone booth. My cube is against a wall—the small mercy of off-white cinder block at my back, separating me from the men on either side by waist-high partitions.
In class Wright is mostly silent, staring into space as I slog through the six-week lesson plan: money management, family reintegration, mock job interviews. Back in the dorm, he talks until he’s out of breath. He comes by my cube multiple times a day, wanting to discuss the tainted air they pump into the prison, the voices in the walls, Obama. Eventually, he totters away—upside-down coffee cup gripped in his hand and winter coat draped over his shoulders, even in summer—still mumbling nonsense.
One morning, weeks after his rotation through Phase 3, Wright walks up to my cube and hands me a letter. The writing is shaky, almost illegible, the paper covered in stickers and random horoscopes torn out of magazines.
“It’s something I want you to have,” he says, sounding like a proud father. “Since we’re such good friends. You one of the only people I can trust, Mike.”
“Okay,” I say, nodding and smiling as usual, a spoonful of cereal halfway to my mouth. Wright beams, shakes my hand, then walks away.
* * *
The land this prison sits on was once owned by the United Society of Christian Believers, a religious sect more commonly known as Shakers. The Shakers moved to this part of New York in 1836, alarmed that a canal was being built near their former town. They hoped to escape all secular influence and signs of so-called progress. They purchased 1,700 acres dotted with fruit trees from a local physician and set to farming the hills.
Less than sixty years later, the community found itself in decline, battling fires, floods, debt, and theft. The population dwindled as the Shakers, who were celibate, struggled to find new converts and maintain their crops. At the end of the 19th century, the remaining Shakers decided to move to Watervliet, a small town a few miles outside of Albany, where other members of their sect had established a thriving village. Though they knew they could make a small fortune parceling off the land for sale, the Shakers were a deeply pious group above all. They didn’t want their land put to wicked use.
Instead, they sold all 1,700 acres to the state of New York for $115,000. The price, negotiated in 1894, was far below market value in an area sometimes referred to at the time as the garden of the state. But New York officials provided the Shakers with something they valued more than money: assurance that the acreage would be used only for “charitable purposes.” The Shakers, satisfied that the land was passing into benevolent hands, packed their things and headed east.
At first, New York State kept its word. Officials announced plans to open a state-of-the-art epileptic colony on the site, boasting that it would represent a shift in the American treatment paradigm. For most of the century, those suffering from epilepsy had been confined in jails and asylums, their misery exacerbated by misdiagnosis and cruel treatment. Any form of therapy was considered a waste of time. Only punitive measures were thought to provide some control.
This new colony would change that. It would pioneer humane, therapeutic treatments for epileptics, who were—as Americans were beginning to understand—merely “afflicted,” not criminal. Residents would enjoy a self-contained town, a community centered on education, recreation, employment, and the best medical care. Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who laid out Central Park, was enlisted to design a section of the grounds. It would be a place of harmony and of God, of healing and of laughter, just as the Shakers would have wanted.
* * *
There’s no privacy in a prison cube, no sense of personal space. The dorm layout is designed so that an officer can see what any of us is doing at a given moment, and this means we can always see each other too. We are always watching and we are always being watched.
I can see Wright sitting on his bunk on the other side of the room, staring at me as I open his letter.
I can barely read it; most of it is incoherent. From what I can make out, it asks for two things. The first is $857, an amount he’s apparently become fixated upon. Boy I Reely need that $$$ Mike. We such GOOD FRENDS and we both no FRENDS ALWAZE HELP eech other out.
The second thing he asks for is a chance to have sex with me. He has seen my harry little ass in the showers; he really hopes we can make this happen before he’s released in a few weeks.
You be a reel pal to LET ME do that Mike A REEL PAL Pleese Mike.
There are two locked metal doors between me and the outside, countless others between me and the free world. Floodlights, sensors, AR-15s trained down from the towers. My hands are shaking by the time I finish reading.
Never let anyone mistake your kindness for weakness. If someone does, you have to make them pay or be labeled a punk. It’s the first piece of advice I ever received in prison, almost two years ago, as a scared 23-year-old locked up for the first time. This letter is the kind of thing over which inmates spill blood—his or mine, one or the other. Doing nothing isn’t an option.
In this moment, I’m aware that I have no experience with being sexually objectified. This is what it feels like to be targeted—to be treated like prey. Wright thinks I’m timid, compliant, that even if I take offense, my anger is nothing to worry about. He either thinks I’m gay or doesn’t care that I’m not. Just a skinny white boy, ripe for the picking.
I can feel my heartbeat in my throat. Wright is cruising me, eye-fucking me in the showers. I tried to be nice, to be human, and he’s taking advantage. I ought to kill the old fuck, teach him a lesson about what pritty boys can do.
But when I show the letter to a few guys I trust in the dorm, they laugh. Wright is just a crazy old man, they remind me—late fifties going on ninety, his black body bowed and hollowed out, the whites of his eyes the color of rancid milk. He’s harmless. No point getting violent with him and messing up my own release date. Be stern about shutting him down, they say, then drop it. And stop showering so sexily.
My cube neighbor agrees; this provocation, apparently, I’m allowed to ignore. José is serving 25 to life for murder, his every muscle hardened to stone in the prison yard.
“Look,” he says, pointing to the letter I’ve just handed him. “He wrote his full name and DIN number like four times on this shit. He’s got the address of the men’s shelter they sending him to on here. If he’s really trying to threaten you, why he gonna put that shit right there in writing?”
José’s smirk pulls his goatee up at one corner. I stare down at the letter, searching for the menace I could’ve sworn was there.
“He’s not threatening you; he’s pleading with you. The dude crazy. How you supposed to get him $857? You got your checkbook on you?”
José folds the letter and puts it in his back pocket. “Look, I’ve seen this kind of thing before. I’ll take care of it.”
* * *
The epileptic colony opened its doors in 1896. By most accounts, it delivered on its promises. People came from all over the world to study it—to marvel at the bakery and grocery store, the nursing school and laundry, the post office and two churches. New York could finally lay claim to a quality of institutional care rivaling that of any European country.
The colony might have continued to thrive, had advances in medicine not rendered it obsolete. By the mid-twentieth century, improved seizure medications limited the number and severity of seizures to an extent that most epileptics no longer required residential treatment. The colony made a short-lived attempt to adapt, shifting its focus to the care of the mentally ill. But when the state decided to phase out institutional care in favor of community-centered programs, the colony’s life as a charitable endeavor reached its end.
By the 1980s, many state-owned institutions were serving a new, common purpose. Talk of therapeutic approaches had ended; voices calling for better treatment of outcasts had fallen silent. The fading colony followed suit, its fate an irony rich enough to choke on. It became a thread in the web of one of the largest mental healthcare providers in the country—an organization ravenous for more space at the time, scouring the state for beds on which to lay newly acquired bodies, deaf to the promise once made to the Shakers. The site was “repurposed” by the Department of Corrections.
The DOC takeover came in stages, the prison perimeter spreading out like a stain. The southern section of the colony was enclosed first, in 1982. Two years later, the northern section was enclosed, increasing capacity by five hundred beds. In 1989—the year I was born—a third and final stage swallowed most of the buildings that remained.
Throughout the process, the parts of the colony not yet under DOC control remained operational. They continued to house a dwindling number of epileptics and the mentally ill until December 1988, when the last patients were relocated, making way for the prison’s final phase of expansion. During the six years between 1982 and 1988, a colony resident could look through a fence at prison inmates walking the paths on the other side.
The prison still uses three of the original Shaker structures. Almost all of the other buildings date to the halcyon years of the epileptic colony. The colony’s nursing school is a training building for prison staff. One of the cottages for male epileptics is now the Special Housing Unit—the box, the hole, where men are locked in cells for twenty-three hours a day.
Only the brick exteriors of these buildings are original, maintained in accordance with their historic registry status. They stand in the valley as they have for more than a century: gutted, quiet, surrounded by guard towers and razor wire, mothers who no longer remember the names of their children.
* * *
A few days after I first show him Wright’s letter, José knocks on the partition separating our cubes—pretending it’s a door, in deference to a privacy none of us actually have.
“I talked to him,” he says. “He’s not gonna be coming over here no more. I told him I know about all the shit he’s been up to, the crazy fuck.”
According to José, Wright’s letter is part of a larger pattern. I’m not the only one Wright has been interested in lately. José tells me Wright did the same thing to a guy in his last dorm: groomed him with pleasantries, then asked for money and sex. When it caught wind of death threats aimed at Wright, the prison—instead of addressing the situation or getting him help—moved him in here.
Wright and I speak once more before I never see him again.
“Hey, how ya doin’ Mike?” he calls out cheerfully one day as I walk out of the bathroom.
I stop and turn around. “Didn’t José talk to you?”
Wright’s rotting smile falls from his face; gray eyebrows creep up.
“Well…yes,” he says, clearly lost. He’s forgotten about the letter and José’s choice words. He doesn’t understand why we no longer talk.
“Okay. Then let’s leave it at that,” I say over my shoulder as I walk away, leaving Wright rooted to the scuffed linoleum, looking as if he might cry.
As Wright’s release date approaches—as I realize he’s going to leave me alone, that I’ve avoided having to hurt him or being branded a punk—my anger cools to unease. Wright is dead broke, with no support network or family. He mentioned this more than once during Phase 3, complaining that the system is setting him up to fail. Upon release, he’ll be handed a one-way bus ticket and $40. An officer will have Wright sign a few papers he won’t understand. He’ll be told to report to a homeless shelter later that day, then pointed out the front door and into the staff parking lot.
For once, I agree with Wright: he’s being set up. I don’t know how he’ll survive in the real world. I can only guess what years of confinement have done to him, his mind wilting like a flower in the dark. Who will he fixate on next? What if, next time, it isn’t solved so easily?
I ask this of the dorm correctional officer, a huge man we call Little Boy Blue. Prison news travels fast. Even a few COs have heard the story of Wright’s letter.
“Aw fuck, who knows?” Blue says, waving his hand as if to swat a fly. “Too many insane sons of bitches in prison to worry about ’em all. He’s not nearly the worst.”
“They need to get that dude some help,” I say, trying to sound casual.
Blue sighs. “Yeah, probably. What can you do, you know? But hey, if you’re so worried, I hear you’ve got his address!”
Blue’s laugh fills the dorm as I walk away, my cheeks burning. He’s right. Forget Wright. Prison is a pool in which no one knows how to swim. I can’t save a drowning man. I can barely save myself.
The weather turns cold in November. Iron radiators lining the dorm walls creak to life, but they don’t help. At night, I pile my state-issue green coat and all my clothing on my bunk for warmth, then burrow beneath the sheets. I listen to the wind sweep across frozen ground. It doesn’t rustle the trees because there aren’t any. The prison cut them all down so there would be nowhere to hide.
They put crazy Wright on a bus down to NYC yesterday, reads one of my journal entries from the end of that month. Good fucking riddance.
* * *
Before the prison—before the epileptics, before the Shakers—there was a Native American village on this land. Every once in a while, another inmate will claim that the prison is about to close. He’ll say the Native Americans are suing to recover their right to the land, that the state has given up on fighting and is finally giving in. He’ll say we’re all going to be transferred to other prisons, scattered across the state like seeds that will never take. Any day now, he’ll say.
The town just up the road—the town our loved ones drive through on their way here to visit us—still carries the name of that village. It’s a Seneca word. Roughly translated, it means “the open spot where the sun shines in.”
More than 2,000 former residents of the epileptic colony lie beneath a field a short walk from the prison. The Shaker burial ground is nearby, too, the headstones eaten away by ice and wind.
Believers rarely referred to themselves as Shakers. The term was an epithet, coined in the wider world to mock their religious fervor. When they felt especially moved by the Holy Spirit, Shakers would jerk and twitch, jump and spasm, their limbs animated by their faith.
They came here to escape that label, hoping to build a community of love. They felt that others would never understand them, that society would only ever treat them with confusion, fear, and disgust. After all, to most people, Shakers looked insane: like a hive of epileptics, their bodies flailing, their minds on fire.
* * *
I’m out on parole, living in an apartment in central New York, when I get curious and look Wright up online. He’s back in prison for the first degree rape of a woman he’d never met. He has a long criminal record—numerous convictions for burglary and robbery—but nothing like this. He’ll die in a maximum-security prison. His earliest release date is 2057.
Sometimes I think a part of Wright knew, deep down, how disturbed he’d become. Maybe that’s where the pleading in his letter really came from. Maybe he knew it was already too late, reaching up in desperation as he sank to the bottom—me treading water at the surface, watching the bubbles rise.
Pleese, Mike, Wright had begged. Pleese.
People have a cruel habit of asking ex-cons if we were ever “propositioned.” Everyone has seen the movies—don’t drop the soap, etc. Out of spite, I make it a point to humor those who ask. I start to tell them about Wright: hamming it up, drawing them into the insanity of the letter, the nervous stutter in his voice.
I tell them how angry and embarrassed I was, how I felt Wright had betrayed my goodwill, how much easier it is to hate than to try and understand. I tell them how I asked a murderer for advice, interested only in protecting myself, my pride, my prison-poisoned sense of what it means to act like a man.
At first, people laugh. “Oh, how funny!” they say. “You should write a book.” Then I finish the story and everyone is silent.
Haven’t we done enough damage already? To ourselves, I mean. If damage isn’t the word, I don’t know what is, all this time gone by. Thinking of you. Longing to go back to what we had. The universe tends toward entropy, I know, I know, but the thought of you has concentrated mass, a definite pull. For me. What has passed between us is more intense than, well, anyway, I don’t want to lose track of where I was going with this.
I can be different. You said I never told you enough about myself, my feelings. Funny to hear from a surgeon-in-training but maybe feelings matter more once you know what we’re made out of. When you left you said, “I don’t know who you are,” and yeah I just gestured like, Here I am, you know?
That wasn’t enough, was it?
So, let me try and explain myself, I have to start at the beginning. To get at the heart of why I am who I am. Who I am is not who I wanted to be, OK? I never wanted to wind up here, writing
Look, there’s no obvious way to communicate how alienated I was then, when this all started. You didn’t appear in my life until years later, Baltimore, grad school, that October, when we met online, sure, but who you first reminded me of, the way your neck cants forward like your head is a little too heavy, how you spoke of your mother—a lunatic, her obsessions at the supermarket, going through every melon, all that talk of bruises—and then your red hair of course, your hair, was and could only be, Paige. Because Paige is well, Paige was there at the beginning. And you know she has nothing on you. OK? Honestly—nothing.
I haven’t seen her in five six seven years
It’s just the memory of that time, this crucial year. And Paige
As a doctor you know corrective surgery is not standard for young people. It’s not everyone who needs it, it’s not always that it works. No one was there to tell me how to catch up on what I’d missed, dreaming of the day a procedure would relieve me of what had, well, definitely, inconvenienced my life since puberty. All the kids I knew were growing and touching each other and telling each other about touching each other, building confidences. It was the whole world. Outside there was, what? Nothing or very little. That’s how it felt. All my confidences were imaginary—in books.
You know books really do a better job than movies of telling how it really is for a pair when they get to the real thing, what brought them here. In the movies, it’s always like, Oh, he deserves it ’cause he’s this movie star we all recognize, or she, or whoever. You know them before you even arrive in the theater. Prepackaged. Like baby-food. On the page, there’s this absence and you have to fill it. I would stare at the words and lose my place on the page and read the words again. The doctors all said to wait until my body had recovered from the surgery.
UNSENT DRAFTS FOLDER (1)
12:15 A.M. October 23rd, 2009
Then I was in college and still a virgin and working outside Boston delivering pizzas for Papa D’s, and Paige was there too. She was a sophomore—she had her own apartment. And that spring leading up to the end of my first year I had gained forty pounds and seven inches in height, suddenly 5”10. The doctors didn’t think it possible, but, hey, their intervention worked, boy did it fucking work. There I was, by all outward signs, 18 years old in a new body and just aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
Sarcasm was my native language. I didn’t know how to speak of anything without mocking it, nothing was good enough because I always felt frustrated. I was fit, had grown my first ponytail, and all the time Paige would get me high. Paige had a boyfriend, this skater who was going to dentistry school, but she would get me high and make fun of him and we made a space where both of us were comfortable. We’d take turns doing voices. She always made her liaisons with the dentist-in-training sound kind of sordid in the retelling, impersonating his voice. Yet it was weird too, because I never knew how involved they ever really were, like maybe she got free drugs or something? Or I wanted to believe that. In more delusional moments I dreamed she was a virgin too and saving herself for me. I’d imagine the stoned pleas of her skater as she turned away from him, naked on a strange futon, and then I would say something sarcastic to the actual Paige who was right there next to me on the futon in her own rented apartment. Particle displacement. Paige would keep the night going with one manic notion or another, Somerville to wherever. How many burritos, how many glasses of cheapo wine, how many rock bands and beer-stained sneakers, I wasn’t keeping a diary, I can’t remember, I only remember
Yeah and so at some point I noticed how she would show up at the pizza place and how she looked at me. There was something in her eyes and in her voice like, You Are Such a Boy! And the way she looked at me was kind of how I was looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, like wondering, Is this real? And, When will it go back to how it was before? I’d slam a novel shut to go online and track down a picture of a famous actress letting down her dress just to feel like someone somewhere was giving permission. That my eyes had permission. It could be me, the other part of a couple, together. Look at how my own looks had changed! Like the pictures of how a guy is supposed to look. The scars had healed nicely, and I followed doctors’ orders on the rowing machine at the gym, and I don’t know, when I saw her looking at me, I knew, maybe there was Something Now. Something between us. No matter how much time had passed, the entirety of freshman year, everyone mad with hookups, while I nursed a crush on her and
Colt at work would give me shit when I showed up to retrieve a few orders, asking had I “hit that yet?” and I’d stare until he said, “Sorry, man, chill, be chill.” Which never stopped him from saying the same thing the next time Paige showed her face at Papa D’s. But Colt, he sang in a band and he was always getting wasted after work and seemed to have trouble remembering much of anything after the fact except which brand of whiskey he liked the most. There were a bunch of different stories he told about the women who would fellate him, like one beneath a staircase and another behind a dumpster outside a rock club that had no dressing room. He had written a song about that one, although he didn’t mention the dumpster in the song.
UNSENT DRAFTS FOLDER (1)
4:40 A.M. October 27th, 2009
You know I’m not an unmotivated guy. Motivation I’ve got in spades. I was doing the pizza thing, OK, smelling of pepperoni on the drive back to the dorms, but always with saving toward grad school in mind—I never let up on the reading, I’d hit the books after hours if Paige was busy or whatever. There’s that law, right, where someone proved there are things that are true that can never be proven true, and that’s how it was with Paige and me, what we shared, the window of time where I know something might have happened, because what did happen is one night in February she asked me to take her home from a party where her skater-dentist was talking to this other girl with just dark hollows for eyes, or that’s how I remember them, their absence of light, and Paige had been drinking a lot, three or maybe four shots of tequila plus whatever else, while I had had just one beer. Meaning I was responsible to drive but kind of surprised when she started leaning against me over the armrest, and then she placed her multi-ringed hand on my thigh and let it rest there, right on my corduroyed thigh. I can’t really do justice to how exciting this was to me then, that breakthrough for my virgin self. She laughed, in a deep way, and I laughed. Then she said, “Holy shit, look out!” and I swerved to avoid hitting one of these Cambridge lunatics who decided to turn right from the left-most lane. Boston drivers, you know.
I walked Paige upstairs. We were getting closer to her apartment door where it felt like the universe might collapse. A line had been crossed—her hand, my thigh. I worried what was the best thing to do? I wanted it to be like the movies, the long-awaited loss of virginity, where a soundtrack would start playing to cue the removal of clothes, but at the same time I knew Paige was drunk and I was not, and I’d read a lot about how being drunk made sex not that great. The next morning she might say I’d taken advantage and that was the last thing I wanted. I wanted just the most crushingly mutual thing, our first kiss and what would come after, like tears and oh-it-was-you-all-along and
She shimmied out of her jeans right in front of me, in the middle of her living room, facing the other way, and her legs had the bluest hue, even if there was a birthmark like a thumbprint on her right calf. Her underwear was rose-colored and lacey at the edges and covered her ass mostly but not entirely. She wobbled a little bit and I turned around, but in the glass of the window, it’s such a movie cliché, I could see her unbuttoning her blouse and then undoing her bra, the reflection of her bare back. She disappeared into her bathroom and when I looked up again she was wearing a long, ratty sleep shirt for some harbor getaway she cared about aesthetically more than anything and I walked her into her bedroom.
“You,” Paige said, “Opie. You’ve always been such a sweetheart to me.” A pause before she said my name, like she had to search to place it, and that is what got to me most of all, the thought of her scrolling a list. While inside my head there was one name and one name only, just hers over and over and over. In that sad way people who are alone have of thinking about what’s meaningful.
“It wasn’t always that easy for you, was it?” she said. “You almost never talk about yourself. Really talk, I mean.”
“Yeah…,” I said, then it slipped out, like that, “I mean, the years before this one. I had some bad years.” And her eyes got a little wetter and more diffuse the way eyes will when taking you in for real. Kind of the way your eyes would sometimes, or maybe how mine did the night you left. But then, what I said next, I said, “I was like one of those starving children on TV, no hope at all. It was like every single one of the world’s biggest problems, that’s what it was like, my life.”
And her brow crinkled up, and she said she didn’t mean to make light of my suffering or anything. I placed my hand on her shoulder and told her she probably had had too much to drink and maybe we could talk in the morning. When I drew the covers up to her chin, she said she wanted a glass of water and when I returned with water in a cup, she kept repeating how the bed was so, so comfortable. And so well I
J., I stopped myself from saying anything sarcastic but my face probably scrunched up the same way you said it does when I’m working late-night on a paper and the paragraphs aren’t right. Like I know the right form is out there. I know I should have access to it. But, for whatever reason, it’s escaping me.
So I left. I walked down the steps and out of the building, leaving Paige in bed, the red luster of her hair across a pillow. And as I walked to my car, my mind leapt ahead to our wedding. Because I was certain right then that we would be married. I felt like she had shown me a new horizon for our relationship, right, and now it was only a matter of disowning the guy she was with, the skater with his messed-up teeth, and soon we would go out for a proper evening together, the symphony or something followed by dinner at a restaurant that would cost me a week’s savings, and then after dinner, her face, her lips, growing enormous with proximity, and I would carry her across a threshold and more and more of the most ridiculous headlong delusions you have ever
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5:37 A.M. November 4th, 2009
What was it that drove her away finally? Something did, spooked her I mean, something in my eyes or tone of voice, a possessiveness maybe—I hadn’t even kissed her—and we stopped talking that winter, even though, I heard soon after, she did break up with her idiot tooth-man who maybe gave her drugs, I don’t know, and, well, the way I finally lost my virginity was one night Colt showed up outside my door and kept knocking and calling until I finally let him in and said we were going out. Out where, I asked. To a club. And I said, I never go out to clubs, I don’t even know how to dance. And Colt said, “Drink this.” And I drank. And he drank. And eventually we caught the T to this place where we waited in line like tools for an hour as women in sparkling tight pants beneath long dark coats went by us before getting inside where it was dark and loud and warm and we ordered three more rounds of shots and I was looking in every direction at once, disgusted with the whole scene, all the mirrors, myself in the middle of them, when I recognized a girl I had been sarcastic to outside Papa D’s the week before—a tall girl with beautiful legs and a smile that showed her gums—and she said to me in the dark as the music throbbed, “Hey, you gonna hook up tonight?”
We got back to my dorm-room and when I touched her beneath the belt, she asked if I had a condom. And as I undid my pants and put it on, I thought about what Paige would have said if she could see me right then—I imagined her there, right there next to me—looking at the guy putting a condom on like a character in a movie.
The next morning
The Kissis a bimonthly series curated by Brian Turner.
Television brought me Eileen Myles. I first saw the poet deliver a reading from I Must Be Living Twice at the University of Rochester’s Susan B. Anthony Institute during a public symposium on Jill Soloway’s Amazon series, “Transparent.” My daughter—silent until Myles took the podium—began babbling as babies do, clanging toys on the leg of a table we had nestled under. Heads turned. Eyes narrowed. Hot with shame, I collected our things, baby on my back, ready to duck out of the library and into the night.
Myles, who goes by the pronoun they, paused. “I don’t mind the baby,” they said. “We really need more babies at these things.” The reading resumed, Myles’s hand carving line breaks out of the air. Was it during “Along the Strand” or “I always put my pussy…” that my daughter stood up from my lap, taking her first steps across the floor and into the arms of a female rabbi sitting next to us? I’ll never know.
Lines are drawn to keep just about every non-cis-male out. Lines are drawn to keep children separate, too—because, after all, they are so much a part of women. Parents of the Western world, regardless of gender, feel that tension. But Myles shows us that the lines demarcating who we are aren’t as fixed as they seem.
Literary form is no exception. Myles’s latest, Afterglow (A Dog Memoir), warps the canon by embodying the mutability of memory and mind. At the crossroads of a book about the fading life of Myles’s beloved pit bull, Rosie, is a blueprint for dismantling conformity and exploring the sublime planes of our existence. With monologue, sci-fi reveries, cosmological lectures, and a chapter called “Dog House” that resonates like a Shepard tone, the book speaks to our shared animal vulnerability facing the fragile, uncertain essence of life in time. A dog lesson.
A recipient of countless accolades, including a Creative Capital nonfiction grant, Myles is the author of more than twenty books and has spent over forty years as a poet, novelist, performer, and art journalist. Having served as artistic director of the St. Marks Poetry Project and run for president as “openly female” in 1991-92, Myles’s life is a caravan of residencies, workshops, fellowships, and teaching opportunities at organizations from grassroots initiatives to institutions like NYU and Columbia. “Unknown to who?” Myles asks in response to mainstream media’s late-breaking awareness of their nearly half-century oeuvre.
At an Avenue A boulangerie near Mast Books, I met up with Myles to talk about Afterglow. They dismounted a white Linus bicycle, hair silver and spilling over smoke-and-cinder plaid, and locked the bike to a rack. They walked inside, reticent at first. A little brusque. At a window-side table in the sun, we sat down to coffee and orange juice, and the layers of anxious formality fell away with Myles’s reflections on life, death, New York, and the birth of a dog book.
—Carlie Fishgold for Guernica
Guernica: Etymology, the origin of words and their layers of meaning in time, comes up a lot throughout your work. Where did that fascination come from? Is it related to being exposed to Latin in your Catholic upbringing?
Eileen Myles: I think it’s part of having studied Latin in high school and—it’s so funny—I was such a bad student and I never did my homework. But Latin went into my head and parts of it have been massively useful. There’s Latin everywhere. My friend David Rattray, a writer and lexicographer who died in the ’90s, was one of a series of male, classics scholars in my life who gave me so much arcane information—the stuff I had an appetite for. [Charles] Olson liked words that had a little bit of dirt still on their roots. I think that all words—all words—do, perhaps. But certain words you can really feel with.
I think about vernacular and how vernaculars persist. There’s that Robert Burns poem, [To a Louse]: “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us.” Gie is for give. In German, the line would read geben sie mir. Then it’s “give me” in English, and then we say “gimme.” “Gimme” seems like my territory in some way, in some accordion way. Even if it’s not necessarily apparent that I’m working [in that territory], those word relationships in general are its world.
Guernica: How do those relationships reproduce the world for you? When you’re looking at a word and you can recognize its history, how does its meaning amplify for you?
Eileen Myles: Well, the first time I was in Rome, I loved that it was so layered, that it was cats and coliseums and restaurants and little sports cars. It was all happening at the same time. India was like that, too. I think New York is utterly that, and every place is like that. There’s layers of physical reality, but then when you start to know the people, you start to hear stories about a dog that everybody knew from years ago, or just who used to be here. Or this person! If you want to know about this person, talk to that person.
Guernica: Like folklore?
Eileen Myles: Yeah. The physical world is folkloric, full of layers and remnants and stuff, too. Sometimes it feels flat and empty and lonely, and other times you’re just so aware of the depth and resonance and, of course, the people. We’re counting them, too.
Guernica: In the “FOAM” chapter of Afterglow, you seem to imply that foam—which you say is a code for excess, that it means I want—and time are connected. Do you think human desire comes from our inability to control the progression of time?How much of the book is about time?
Eileen Myles: I’m sure the whole book is a distinctly accumulative text. It’s not in the order that it was written. The letter from the lawyer in the first chapter—I must have written that in 1998 or ’99. Out of the blue I got this letter, as in I got this idea in writing. If I was another kind of writer, I would just have written the arch dog book about my crimes against Rosie. But I knew I wasn’t that kind of writer, so I published [the letter by itself] in a student magazine and time passed. Then when Rosie died, I started writing about her. Then the problem kept being where to go now in order to keep making there be a book.
There was this period of six months when Rosie was dying and I was reading a ton of science-fiction books, which was such a return to childhood for me, when I read so much of it. Then I just didn’t read it at all. Later on, when I was thinking, How can I get sci-fi into this book, I realized all I needed to do was lie. In “Everyday Barf,” I lift something from Bob Dylan’s Chronicles—wait, have you read this book? Did he actually write it? I don’t know! But somebody really wonderful wrote it, and they talk about Dylan explaining how he constructed Bob Dylan. It’s very postmodern. He talks about going to see Woody Guthrie when he was dying, later covering Woody Guthrie songs, and when he started to write his own songs he pretended they were still Woody songs. He did that for a while just as a way to stand up there and sing a Bob Dylan song. Here’s another old Woody song I found… At some point, he decided to let people know that the songs were his.
The whole idea of fake performance—it was exactly that. I thought, I’ll just tell people the stories of the books I was reading when Rosie was dying. Then I started making up my own shit.
Guernica: Is fantasy an escape of yourself to write about yourself?
Eileen Myles: I think it’s play rather than escape. You have a dog. You spend a lot of time walking the dog. You spend a lot of time with a non-verbal person. Who knows how they apprehend you, but you’re making shit up about them because we have this imagination—and a dog may have an imagination too. I held for a long time that Rosie was my dad. It made me embroider the closeness with her in a different way, so it was easy to write because I’d already had it as a space for a long time.
I got a Guggenheim and I went to Ireland in 2013 and wrote a lot of the book there, a lot of the later stuff like Rosie speaking. All the stuff that seems like it would be Ireland I wrote in Ireland. There was a point in which I needed about thirty-five more pages. I felt like I knew what I needed and I was staying in a monastery near Limerick that Fanny Howe had recommended. It was kind of like I was waiting for Rosie in a way.
I love tapestries, and there was a big show of them at the Met a few years ago. It was so important. For me it said something about narrative as a visual event and how beautiful storytelling for the illiterate is. I thought, How can we translate this experience to the page? Then when I was at the monastery, [Rosie] began speaking [through] the tapestries. If I allowed the dog to animate the tapestries, this gorgeous illiterate platform… Well, it was through this funny leap that Rosie performed. She began to talk through writing, and it was really exciting to see what she had to say. She told me about the family I already knew, and then she told me about the family I was meeting in Ireland. She kind of scrolled and unscrolled who and what I was meeting. She exploded everything.
I feel like the hardest thing about writing is creating movement. You have to use pots of information and always what I’m waiting for is a flow. Once there’s a flow I can pour a little of this in and keep going, pour a little of that. It’s a process.
Guernica: We travel in the book between New York, California, Ireland, Turkey, into dream states and even the cosmos. What were your approaches to space and time in creating movement throughout the story?
Eileen Myles: In the last years of Rosie, I would take Rosie on walks and videotape them. I had the recordings put on a disc, and the idea was to transcribe it as a movement. Actually, it is the same as tapestry is to narrative. The footage was like a tapestry. That was my homework in Istanbul: to get up every morning in my hotel room and transcribe for a few hours, and then just go out into the city.
I also met an old friend who was living in Istanbul. He suggested we take a trip together, so we went to this town called Iznik, formerly known as Nicea—like the Nicean Creed. The town is known for creating this great Turkish tile. It’s tile town. This guy and I would just walk around together, but the thing that was so funny is that I had been spending days narrating the movements of the dying dog, and now I was with this man whom I wasn’t getting along so well with and we were kind of irritated and silent and we were walking each other, and it felt like the same action. I went to my hotel room, and I wrote our walks too from daily life, just a continuation of the movement of the book. I felt like the experience had been rendered into a machine through my own writing process. I couldn’t stop transcribing where I was, except now it was this parallel experience in reverse.
Guernica: You mention crossroads in the Ireland chapters. Do the transcription chapters act like crossroads? The word “transcription” is rooted etymologically in the action of crossing—that trans element—and you mark those chapters with x’s.
Eileen Myles: I like that. They’re interludes. I wanted them to have a sameness, which accounts for the x-x-x. I like the idea that the real Rosie, on some level, is walking through the book. The real, dying Rosie. Because her death was really the real moment of the book, too. It’s not so much about having a dog, loving it, and living with a dog as much as it’s about a dying dog. It’s waiting. And of course, the book is dedicated to my mother, who just died. She died on April 3. I was like, “Mom, my next book is dedicated to you,” and she said, “I’m not gonna be there,” and I said, “You will, you will.” It’s bittersweet.
Guernica: Are you okay talking about that a little bit?
Eileen Myles: Little bit. Yeah.
Guernica: I’ve heard you talk about preparing for her death so many times, thinking, This is it—that moment on the cliff’s edge—and then she’d live. What is it like on the other side of that kind of thinking?
Eileen Myles: I don’t know. It’s a mystery. I’ve never not had a mother. I’m sixty-eight. To have lived so long with a mother—she was ninety-six—is very eerie. Luckily, I was with her for five days when she was dying and then I was in the room when she died, which was incredible. During that week, I was in Massachusetts and then I was at the funeral, and then I came back. A million things happened in there. The first week I was back in New York I had a pile of gigs. I do too many gigs. I think something I hope I’ll come out of my mother’s dying with is to really do less. The week after she died, I did all of my gigs and it was weird. Of course, they were all radically different events. I had radically different experiences of what it was like to be there when my mother had just died. Sometimes I would say it. Sometimes I wouldn’t say it. And then, this past week, I had a couple of things to do, but this was the week I realized I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do, no matter how much I loved the person or how close I was. I think I won’t be there. That’s been interesting. I don’t know what I feel. I feel like, wow. Mom. Where are you?
My brother wrote me today, an email, and he was talking about gardening. My mother didn’t ever have a garden. She never lived anyplace where she had that land. She was flowers in the window, flowers in the house. She could make anything grow. She was amazing that way. I’m the opposite. Any plant, if it can die around me, it will die. I just don’t have that maintenance sensibility. If it doesn’t walk, I won’t remember it. But my brother Terry was talking about gardening and remembering my mother, and then he realized that to garden was to have the thought go through his head: I have to call Mom. That was so weird. She’s just in all these weird places and I had never noticed she was there because she [herself] was the reminder to call her. I wasn’t the best—I hesitate to say daughter—whatever I am, you know? But we had a relationship and I feel we were at peace with whatever that was when she died.
Guernica: Would you consider Afterglow a masterpiece? Is that a gross cliché of a question?
Eileen Myles: [Laughs] I’ll give you an even grosser answer. All my books are masterpieces. I don’t think I’ve written a bad book yet.
Guernica: Fair. So how are your style and process evolving?
Eileen Myles: Well, I pulled all the stops out. I am very excited to see how people are going to react to this book. It was hard to find the right publisher. In a way, people don’t even look at the book. They look at you. It seemed like lots of publishers wanted me to follow up on what I had been doing. They were like, This will not build on their success. They felt it had to be alcoholic, lesbian, and wild, or however it is that they perceive me—it’s got to be more of that.
Guernica: Afterglow gives the reader subconscious tools to dissolve enmity. Regarding that desire to categorize or simplify the world outside of the mind, to check a box like “male” or “female”—do you think the book was too much for some editors to personally reckon with?
Eileen Myles: Yeah, I do. The thing with checking a box is, no matter what you check, everything gets erased. Everything will get erased. With Rosie’s death, I started to have a real encounter with that fact. My dad died when I was eleven, and I couldn’t comprehend what I had seen and what had happened. I couldn’t understand it. Rosie’s death was palpable. I could be present and begin to understand what happened. Everybody on some level encounters death, but I feel like because my dad’s death was very intense and I was very young when I saw it, I didn’t know where to go with it. The rest of my life is what happened. I had a craft, finally, with which I could make a nice reception for my dog’s death.
Guernica: Rosie became a marker for the before and the after for you in processing the trauma of death.
Eileen Myles: I think so, yeah. I remember when I got her, I was like: I’m forty. I’m eight years sober. I can handle a dog. ‘Cause you know, I had one in my twenties, and it was a disaster. I lost the dog, it was terrible. At forty, I had arrived. I almost want to say, I became a man! But I became whatever it is that can own a dog and take care of it. I was still a bad dog owner, though.
Guernica: You tell the story of Taffy, the puppy your father brought home to you, in other books. In Afterglow, it seems your father probably knew a dog like Taffy could be a placeholder for him in your life.
Eileen Myles: That’s interesting, I never thought of that. Yeah. He was a pathetic man, my father. In the best, strongest sense. A little, kind dog is pathetic, and my mother had no room in the house for anything more pathetic.
Guernica: Could your mom have seen the dog as a placeholder for your father and taken it back to the ASPCA as a way to keep your father closer, maybe alive longer?
Eileen Myles: No. I think my mother absolutely didn’t want to deal with another ounce of caretaking and didn’t understand—well, I don’t know, would I have taken care of a dog at age eight or nine? I think I would have. My mother was a very controlling woman. When she died, I was adverse to announcing her death on social media and to the creepy narcissism of showing a photo of her as a beautiful young person when that’s not who died. My mother was a private woman. I love when I encounter my own privacy and the other ways in which I am like her. But because of that reserve in her, there was no room for something like a dog.
Weirdly, I have a stepsister whom I barely know. My mother remarried in 1971 right when I was leaving the house and graduating from college. I never knew the guy, but he had a grown son and a daughter. The daughter, when I told her my mother died, she wrote me back and I think, unbidden, she reminded me how much my mother loved Rosie and that my mother had said Rosie had pretty feet. Isn’t that hysterical? And she never mentioned it to me, which is very much my mother.
Guernica: Death brings that awareness to us. It brings all of these puzzle pieces back to the box, maybe just for a day.
Eileen Myles: Yes! It’s like the Buddhist thing where you ask the teacher a question and they hit the ground with a stick, or they say boo, or something. Death is that.
Guernica: Is there desire for any of your books to become a film?
Eileen Myles: I’ve already written the first draft of a screenplay for Chelsea Girls. We’ll see how that goes. I’m watching The Leftovers right now, and it’s so weird because I think I’m watching this show that has the most to do with what I’m going through emotionally. It’s a show in which on October 14 of a year sometime around now, 2 percent of the world’s population has vanished. But, with these shows, it already feels like time to be questioning the form. If you watch enough of them, you feel their pattern codifying, like they’re starting to squeeze the life out. At the same time, the things they’re considering for subject matter are really fantastic, and that’s great. The nineteenth century had novels and serialized novels in newspapers that were flourishing, and we have the TV show. I feel like it is the epic of our moment. But we’re also watching TV on the computer, all alone.
Guernica: Where do you think television is going, considering how we use social media? It’s as though we have co-opted our own means of transmitting sound and image that reminds me of broadcasting. Is social media television?
Eileen Myles: Yeah, I do think we’re all producers. But is [social media] your profession, and do you get rewarded for it? ‘Cause there really is such a thing as TV.
Right now, poetry and TV are the big art forms, and I think because of social media, poetry is fragmentary. It’s derelict. It’s triumphant. All of these things. It’s perfect for now, and it’s probably better TV than TV.
Eileen Myles: I had refused to acknowledge my mother’s death on social media. [One day] I was in a gallery with Ariana Reines—this show by a British artist. It was music and clogs, costumes. We like this [artist]—he makes us laugh—and I felt moved to do a little dance. I did, and Ariana filmed it. She put it on Twitter and I re-tweeted it and said, “This is a dance for my mother.” Which is absolutely what it was. You should see it.
A double-steepled, bronze-bricked Gothic at the cross of Warren and Dartmouth, Blessed Savior has been on that corner for more than a hundred years. Through World Wars and Great Depressions, terror scares and countless recessions—through an American Century of money and blood and misbegotten love—Blessed Savior has been there. Or, rather, it’s been here, hawking its wares, doing its do.
Spires climbing into the black satin night, searching for whatever it is spires have always been searching for, the church has taken its age gracefully, façade barely featuring the slower, deeper decay, the architectural osteoporosis lurking beneath its skin. Working that corner—rain or shine, snow or sleet—Blessed Savior has always reminded me a little of a pusher standing his beat, selling the same lies he bought himself once upon a time.
You think that’s wrong, right? Bad? Evil? But you can’t blame the pusher for his lies. Even though he knows they’re lies, on some level he still believes them. Because he’s not just a pusher. He’s an addict, too. That’s the thing. No matter how bad life gets, we cling to what we have. What Blessed Savior has is God, Jesus, the Trinity. And what I have is you. Even though you don’t think I exist.
I take the steps two at a time. Sure, they’re iced-over, badly; but they don’t bother me. I’ve still got talents, skills, fucking bona fides. Not that I’d measure up to what you’ve programmed yourselves to think of as a god. None of us would.
Between your comic book heroes barging across the big screens and your American gods clogging up the little ones, you’ve tricked yourselves into believing we don’t exist, that we can’t possibly be real. We’re creatures of special effect and satirical comedy, phantoms of the narrative ether, nothing more. We’re no ghosts, though; not at all, not us. At this point we’re very much flesh and blood, more like you than we’ve ever been. More like you than you could possibly imagine.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I care if you ignore me. Loki’s here if you want him, and if you don’t, you don’t. Odin on the other hand… well, he’s pissed, has been ever since… forever, really. Don’t let the PR fool you. One-Eye’s never been good or noble, just, or honorable. All-father? I mean, I’m his son. I should know, shouldn’t I?
Hanging from some magic tree to gain the Mead of Poetry, to bring wisdom to mankind? Sitting in far Valhalla granting boons to the most valorous of warriors? Magic spears and Mimir’s head? Sorcerous ravens and preternatural wolves? Eight-legged fucking horses? I mean, seriously…
But isn’t that what you’d expect of real evil? Not some obvious, cartoon devil twirling his moustache and muttering “drat,” but a vision of light, a pretense of good and nobility when the truth is the absolute opposite. When Odin is the real reason for all our troubles, yours and mine. If he hadn’t gone meddling in your lives way back when, if he hadn’t cast me out of Asgard time and time and time again, what a wonderful world this would be.
Minty linoleum floors and walls of lemon-yellow cinderblock, Blessed Savior’s basement is a decorator’s acid trip gone to shit. Dazzling fluorescents loom overhead, emitting a low-grade buzz, like giant bug traps waiting to go zippety-zap. Citrus perfumes and boozehound colognes linger from the Americans Against Tyranny meeting that broke an hour ago. I know these guys, these AAT’s. They’re hell on two legs, Odin’s own.
They meet just before my 9 p.m. AA meetings, Tuesdays in Cambridge. And that group is even worse than this one. Hooting about the taxes they don’t pay, and the welfare other people shouldn’t get, howling about their inalienable rights to Social Security, Medicare, and a Christian America.
Something about being in the People’s Republic of Taxachusetts, maybe, that makes the right-wingers veer even farther right. That’s how it is, though. Back in the deep past, back in Valhalla, I always felt a little queasy, a little like I was out of my element. And I was. But even I didn’t realize quite how bad the old man had gotten until Adolf came along…
A paper cup of coffee in my left hand, a red, plastic stir in my right, I watch the pebbles of un-dissolved creamer bob and weave across the caramel-colored whirlpool I’ve just raised to life. Forget about reality for a second, forget about everything you’ve ever known, and this cup of coffee could almost be magic. The way the liquid becomes a tiny vortex, the way it beckons, seems to promise eternal sleep, it’s almost enough to make you dive right in…
I set down the stir, bring the cup to my lips and sip. The coffee tastes like it always does at these basement shindigs, the same as it did at the Gambler’s Anonymous meeting I just left in Brookline. Mildly toxic and burnt, Blessed Savior’s coffee tastes of irony dulled by repetition. It tastes of America.
“All right, Gustav, why don’t you kick us off?” says our facilitator, Ted, as he turns to me. Ted’s my boy, by the way, my latest in a long line of reclamation projects. Of course, he has no idea who I really am. That would completely spoil the fun.
“Happy to, Ted. My name is Gustav, and I’m a sexaholic,” I offer with all the shyness I can muster.
“Hello, Gustav,” they respond as one.
“Hi.” I cut my gaze as though about to divulge something I’d rather not. “I had a situation this week.”
“Yes,” say various audience members. Others nod, smile, and/or avert their gazes. All, I’ve learned, standard responses at twelve-steppers. We’re embarrassed to know the truth about each other, that much is true. But we’re even more embarrassed to know it about ourselves.
“I was on my stepfather’s compound, and I started having urges,” I continue.
“What brought on these urges, as you call them?” Ted asks.
“It was the valks.”
“What’s that, a new dick pill?” offers a guy in a white oxford. The sleeves of his once-immaculately-starched, now-immaculately-wrinkled shirt rolled up, jacket and tie dispensed with somewhere between work and Blessed Savior’s basement, he looks distressed, even vexed. He looks like a politician surveying a disaster site he’s about to get blamed for. “Like bicockatrix?”
Ted cuts in, “No, no, no… Come on, gang, it’s an indigenous tribe, like the aborigines, but… but from Europe.” He looks to me for confirmation.
I don’t correct Ted even though he’s wrong. How could I? I’m the one who dished him this aboriginal fib a few weeks back.
“Valkyries?” he asked at the intake. “You mean like Wagner? Those operas?”
I laughed. “Nah. Totally different spelling. And we usually just call them valks. It’s easier. It may sound like a v but it’s really something more like an fsth when it’s spelled.”
“In their language,” I added authoritatively, “Trust me, Ted, I’m just trying to make this as easy as possible.”
He nodded and, of course, bought it. Yeah, I know I’m a Dickens, but what can I say? I may not be “evil” anymore, I may be unapologetically good, but I still have a few tricks up my sleeves. Fore- and first-most, I am indeed one hell of a liar.
“Somewhere in the Carpathians,” Ted adds confidently. “No value judgments here, Gustav, but you’ve talked about these valks before. Does it occur to you that this isn’t just a simple indiscretion, that it’s more like an abuse of power?”
“They don’t work for me.”
“They work for your stepfather, though. You can’t get around the fact that you’re having sex with the help.”
“What are they? Maids, cooks, charwomen?” asks the politician.
He raises his palms, nods noncommittally.
“They’re imported… I mean, guest workers… Like I said. Low cost of labor. Economic decision.”
“You mean like slaves?”
“Slaves? God, no, they’re like, they’re…more like nannies,” I add, smiling wide and white as punctuation.
“And you turn them out?” asks a woman with a buzz cut. Dressed in a red plaid shirt and a black, polythene vest, she looks like so many of you do these days. Woodsy and cityish all at once, she looks as if she can’t decide whether to blow up a tree or hug one.
“He’s a pimp,” says the politician, smiling now, an understanding finally reached.
“No, I told you, I don’t turn anyone out. I just had a threesome. If anyone’s a pimp it’s my stepfather.”
“Sounds like control is one of your issues,” says the politician.
“Dealing with authority figures,” offers the woman.
“Wicked impulses,” adds someone else.
“Envy,” says Ted, grouping the barrage of accusations into one manageable charge.
There’s a hush, as though maybe Ted has crossed a line, but the group isn’t quite sure what line it is he crossed. What Ted said doesn’t bother me, mind you. How could it? He’s responding to pure fabrication. But it seems accusing a fellow groupie of one of the seven deadly sins may have rubbed a few people the wrong way. (Which, obviously, implies a fair amount of guilt circulating through our little group.)
The silence is broken by a woman’s voice. “If you ask me, your stepfather sounds like an asshole.” The voice is smooth, light even. But the tone is matter of fact. “Asshole” somehow winds up sounding like it has a long z in the middle, almost like a lullaby.
I turn to three o’clock and the voice’s owner. A stunning, reed-thin redhead, she wears knee-high boots and jeans just this side of melodramatic. Long, straight hair, eyes of frosty midnight, breasts I can only guess at by the heave of her fuzzy lavender sweater… She looks like she could be in the industry, and I’m not talking about clean energy. Honestly, she looks like a Valkyrie—a real one, I mean, not the semi-invented version that have so recently run amok. That’s not all of it with the redhead, though. I get this feeling looking at her, this feeling of progressive déjà vu, as though I’ve seen her many times before even though I’m sure I haven’t. Yes, I realize that makes no sense. Still, I get this feeling.
“It’s not like you forced them to do anything, right?” she continues.
“Of course not.”
“Exactly. Thank you.”
“All right, all right,” says Ted, busting in. “That’s a good start, Gustav. Sunshine, why don’t we move on to you?”
“Sure, Ted.” She surveys the crowd. “My name is Sunshine, and I’m a sexaholic.”
“Hi, Sunshine,” they say.
“Hi, Sunshine,” I whisper, a second too late. She’s beautiful, yes. And now she’s smiling, smiling at me.
You wouldn’t think I’d still be attracted to you guys after all the millennia, all these millions of couplings. There’s just something about the human form, male and female both—the combination of energy and fragility, frailty and optimism—that I can’t get over; something about a pretty girl or boy that can still turn my head and heart to mush. I’m smitten with you guys, always have been.
“Why don’t you give us a little backstory, Sunshine?”
“Well, I used to be a therapist.”
Gulps all around.
“And?” someone asks.
“And I got busted for fucking my patients.”
“What do you do now?” the politician asks.
“Dance as in tap?” I ask.
“Dance as in strip,” she says.
“The Genetic Impossibility.”
After the meeting breaks, I’m eyeing Sunshine, still trying to figure out who she is and where I know her from. I mean, it’s not The Genetic Impossibility. Support groups, my writing workshop, the other odds and ends… I scan my life in my mind, searching for the connection, looking for Sunshine. But I guess I lose focus, start to drift. Anyway, before I know it Sunshine’s up on me, lovely, electric, and standing way too close.
“Look, let’s not play any games,” she says.
“I need…” She slits her eyes, scans the room, a spy at a meet making sure she hasn’t been tailed.
“I need…” More eye-slitting and side-glancing. More spy at meet-making-tail-checking.
“I need to talk to you.”
“What about? Ted’s sponsoring you himself, isn’t he?”
She glances at Ted, who waves a little too gregariously. Oh, poor Ted. He needs more help than I could have possibly imagined. I’m getting it done, though, don’t worry. Ted’s my latest and greatest, and I shall not fail him.
“Umm, sure, but it’s not about that.”
“I know who you are.”
“Yeah, I know who you are, too. Don’t worry, though, it’s cool. Outside these doors, mum’s the word.”
“I mean it… Trickster,” she whispers.
“Ehh?” I grunt in subhuman double-take. I remind myself of that misogynistic chimp-impersonator from Home Improvement. Honestly, it’s embarrassing. I’m not sure how that guy, whatever his name is, has managed to spend his entire adult life doing that chimp sound and making money at it.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I’m lying through my teeth at this point, doing a pretty good job of it at that. Sure, I may not be a full-on god anymore but there are a few things I’m still good at—deception, disguise, mischief, intrigue… But not evil, not anymore, no sir-ree.
“Look, I have to talk to you about something.”
“Yeah. The fate of the world could depend on it.”
“Fate of the world? That sounds like a pretty tall order for a guy who can’t even control himself around the help.”
She nods, but only slightly. She squints.
“Can’t help you, though. I’m just an average dude.”
“I’m serious,” she says, gazing at me intently, searching my eyes. She looks… Well, she looks serious, and by serious what I mean is crazy.
“Fine, I’ll see what I can do,” I lie, scanning for exits.
“I’m serious,” she adds again.
“Yeah, I think we established that.”
“I’ll be at the Irish place a couple blocks back toward Boylston.”
“The one you go to almost every night, McMurtry’s.”
“I told you, I’m a Norn.” She glares at me. “So, you’d better show.”
Owned by a Ukrainian with ties to the Russian mob, managed by a Polish ex-bodybuilder named Israel, McMurtry’s is your typical slice of Americana: a place where languages, religions, and races collide; money acting as expert simultaneous interpreter. It’s the sort of place where once you’re a regular (which I am), they’ll let you do pretty much whatever the fuck you want (which I do). I go there to write and drink (mostly to write). Oh, who am I kidding? I go there mostly to drink.
I stroll in about twenty minutes after that discussion at Blessed Savior. Sure, I’m game. This Sunshine chick has something, and I need to know exactly what it is. Is she a full-on Norn? It’s possible. Not likely, but possible. When the Norns left, they said they’d be back, but only once; only when it was time for Ragnarok. And like I said before, none of us are in any shape to put on a legitimate apocalypse at this point.
Still, it’s technically possible Sunshine’s who she says she is. I need more details to be sure. Either way, the fact that she thinks I’m the Norse god, Loki, is a bit troubling. Primarily because I am the Norse god, Loki, and that’s not something I’ve been looking to feature here on Earth. I’ve been trying to blend in, not subjugate the masses. I told you: I’m not what you think, not the horn-helmed lunatic popularized in comic books, film, and even the basic, half-baked mythology Odin’s been pushing since he could get anyone to listen. I’m good. I’m here to help.
The place is dark (as usual), a weak, molasses hue fallen across the entire scene. The scents of spilled beer, illicit cigarettes, and fried cod permeate the place—stale and sugary, smoky and sulfurous, burnt and oily. To tell you the truth, it smells a little like Valhalla in the old days. A frowning Sunshine waves me over.
“Some place,” she offers.
“You picked it.”
“I was starting to think you wouldn’t show.”
“Then this must be a pleasant surprise.” I plant myself in the captain’s chair across from her. Its frame squawks in something like protest.
“You want one?” she asks.
“A pleasant surprise?”
“A drink.” She nods toward the flute on the table in front of her. Half full of a pale, gold liquid, bubbles bunch at the bottom of the glass. Every now and then one shakes free from the group, floats upward for a few milliseconds and explodes.
“What is that?”
“Cham-what?” I cut my gaze. “They actually let you order that shit?”
McMurtry’s is no joke: a Jameson’s and Guinness joint all the way. Still, I guess if you look like Sunshine you can get whatever you want wherever you go. I should know that already, though, shouldn’t I? Come to think of it, so should you.
“Nothing,” I say, nodding to the bartender Yuri, mouthing ‘usual.’” Let’s get back to the reason you brought me here.”
“I already told you, Loki. I know who you are. That’s why I brought you here.”
“Fine, I’m not disputing that my name may or may not be Loki. It’s the rest of this tale I’ve got a real problem with. For example, you say you’re a Norn?”
“Who or what is a Norn?”
Sunshine’s lids drop just a little. Her baby blues focus as in epiphany. “Oh, I see… This is all a veneer.”
“This place?” I ask, looking around. “A veneer of what, shit?”
“Not this. You. Trying to fly under the radar until you’re ready to start your war and destroy the planet? How can you be so callous, so cruel? There are billions of souls at stake.” She looks down, continues speaking in a softer voice, “There’s no hope. They’re all evil now.”
“You realize you’re talking to the table, right?”
“I’m not talking to the table.”
“No, I’m pretty sure that’s a table.”
“I am speaking to my mistress.”
“All right let’s not go getting all metaphorical here.”
“What am I supposed to do with this?” She shakes her head, gaze still directed downward. “Why couldn’t we just stay with the plants?”
“Oh, now he wants to talk?”
When I don’t respond, she continues. No surprise there. That’s the way these planned revelations usually work, isn’t it?
“We wandered after we left Asgard, moved from plane to plane, looking for a spot in the space-time continuum where we might make a difference, where we could serve Fate again.”
“And did you?”
“Sure, after a few centuries.”
“Yeah, we were aimless at first, depressed, dispossessed.”
“Depressed? I’d say escaping One-Eye was the smartest thing you ever did.”
“It’s not as easy as you’re making it sound. What do you think it’s like playing twenty-ninth fiddle in a religion only to see it go belly-up?”
“You could have stayed.”
“No, we couldn’t. It was obvious Odin was taking the whole thing down the tubes. It would have been a waste of time to stick around.”
“Why’d you even come back? We lost our powers when Hitler killed himself. We’re probably not even capable of a decent Ragnarok at this point.”
“I’m getting to that.”
I glance over at Yuri, catch his eye, and mouth “double.”
“We wandered a long time, finally wound up in this pocket dimension that… y’know, felt right. A place we thought we could be happy, make ourselves useful.”
“Like a parallel dimension, just smaller.”
“If you say so.”
“It was dreamy there, low stress. The entire dimension was populated by sentient, bisexual plants.”
“The plants you were talking about?”
“Right. They were like, ‘Do whatever. Just don’t hurt anyone.’”
“But what did they want in return?”
“They just let us hang out. Said we could stay as long as we wanted.”
“So, why leave?”
“You don’t know why you left?”
“I thought things were going great, then all of a sudden one day my sisters disappeared… Poof!”
“So they’re dead?”
“I didn’t say dead. I said, ‘Poof!’ They disappeared. You know, into the cosmos,” she says, waving her hands as though preparing to break into some serious kung fu. “I had no choice but to follow.”
“We always have a choice.”
“Ha. Maybe you do, Trickster. You’re a unitarily integral being. I’m one of three, though. I have to be on the same plane of existence as my sisters. That’s that. If I don’t go willingly I’ll be drawn and being drawn really fucking hurts.”
“Yeah, yeah, Odin’s got something like that on me.”
“He can draw you?”
“Not draw, command, thrice a century. But if you’re a Norn, you’d already know this.”
“I guess I forgot. It’s been a while.”
I shrug, wishing I could order another-nother drink.
“Command you to do what?” she continues.
“Command me to go see him.”
“When did all that start?”
“First time he launched me from Asgard. Said he wanted to be sure he could keep an eye on me. No pun intended.”
“So you understand?”
I wonder where my drink is.
Sunshine keeps going, “And that’s why I came back here, to Midgard.”
“They call it Earth now.”
“What sort of a name is that?”
“I don’t know. It’s just what they call it. If you go around saying ‘Midgard-this’ and ‘Jotunheim-that’ somebody’s going to rat you out to Homeland Security.”
She squints. “Don’t,” she says.
“I know what you’re going to ask, so don’t ask it.”
Appalachia is more than just a region in the eastern United States. For some Americans, it’s an important element in the story about why we have the president that we do. A case and point: Hillbilly Elegy, the 2016 bestselling memoir set in Appalachia, was proclaimed by the New York Times as one of “6 Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win.” But for Elizabeth Catte, a public historian and activist from Appalachia, it’s a place that many people just get wrong. The popular image of Appalachia as a home to a backwards, white population that’s trapped in a culture of poverty is a falsehood that people believe to avoid taking responsibility for social problems, she says. “I think it’s a basic kind of psychological desire that there is a place where everything that’s toxic and not progressive can be compartmentalized.”
Catte grew up in East Tennessee, and writes about an Appalachia that we outsiders don’t hear much about in the news. It’s a place rich in diversity, with communities whose members include LGBTQ and people of color, and where the working class is not just made up of white male coal miners. Catte knows the region has problems, but says they are only made worse by false views of Appalachia that have a long history rooted in racism. And when Hillbilly Elegy, a book that Catte argues only perpetuates these dangerous stereotypes, became a national bestseller, she decided to write her own book to correct the record. Her work, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, is a short, compelling read, steeped in history, and serves as a wonderfully intelligent antidote to the untruths of our political moment. Also, depending on your notion of Appalachia, it can be transformative.
I spoke with Catte recently over the phone about these “imaginary Appalachias” that bewitch our nation, why they have power over so many people, and the racism that underlies them. We talked about why she’s hopeful about the region, and how she, a person deeply interested in the history of the underrepresented, can help. “What is often lost to the public is that history is not really an organic process. It’s strategic, and shaped by people with power who tell us what we should remember and what should we forget. But I wanted to be somebody who busted silences and complicated history.”
—Regan Penaluna for Guernica
Guernica: What motivated you to write this book?
Elizabeth Catte: The story of how this book came into being is that I moved from Tennessee to Texas about the same time that the last presidential election really started to heat up. I was a new person in a new environment, meeting loads of people in the university and business leaders and doing awkward small talk, and people were filling the silences with praise for the book Hillbilly Elegy. They were using it to convince me of this bigger conversation about the presidential election, and what Appalachia might do to the country.
I began to notice more and more a sort of genre taking shape [in the media], which I call a “Trump Country” genre, that you also see reflected in Hillbilly Elegy. The Trump Country genre uses Appalachia to explain various manifestations of toxic politics and self-defeat, which were thought to be the side effect of the presidential election and the symptoms that called it into being.
I thought that I saw a new pattern emerge, and I wanted to study it from the ground up. I happened to connect with a publisher based in Ohio who was having similar feelings about her region and the Rust Belt. And so we decided to run with a digestible read about Appalachia, using the 2016 election and working backwards into some deeper history.
Guernica: Say more about the “Trump Country” genre and why it’s a problem.
Elizabeth Catte: There are a couple things that it’s useful to be aware of. The first one is just the sheer ratio of Trump Country pieces. We have to question why there are so many articles about Appalachia and Trump, and so few articles about progressive people in Appalachia.
Also, you see journalists going to the same places, and the same people get interviewed over and over again. I don’t know if the reading public is necessarily going to realize that. I call them minor coal-country celebrities, people who are very outspoken in support of Donald Trump, and who get recycled throughout these pieces.
Another facet of a Trump Country piece is that when journalists want to debunk things that people on the ground say—you know, like, “Coal’s coming back”—they’ll go to an expert in New England, New York, or Chicago. They’ll never ask one of the many environmentalists or scientists in Appalachia what they think.
Guernica: In your book, you challenge the notion of the white male coal miner as representative of the working class in Appalachia, and argue that there is also a “forgotten working class.” Who are they?
Elizabeth Catte: The working class of Appalachia is the working class of any region. It’s people who work in retail and hospitality. People who work in healthcare and are underpaid for that. People who are teachers and educators, who, again, are very underpaid. The working class are the people just like in California, who are trapped in what we call the gig economy. People who are trapped in unstable work contracts, temp labor, people who work at the Dollar General store. People who give you your flu shot. These are the people in Appalachia who make the region tick. Also, the emerging face of the working class is more likely to be a woman or a person of color.
And so it’s really kind of concerning to hear the region is emblematic of this special breed of white male working-class person, because there are so many people throughout the country who are trapped in the same economic circumstances, and have the same limitations on economic growth and ability. And nobody was really talking about them during this election.
The coal industry in Appalachia employs maybe thirty thousand people, and the reason that it’s so important is because it was one of few industries where you could leave high school and get a job making a living, and even oftentimes a comfortable wage. When people lose those jobs, it’s going to be a huge hit for the economy. But there also lots of people who already lost a well-paying job and then had to go work at the Dollar General store. The Trump Country stories are narratives of omission, and these are people who need to be restored to the conversation.
Guernica: A large part of your book is a takedown of the New York Times bestseller Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.
Elizabeth Catte: To understand Hillbilly Elegy, I think you have to first go to the subtitle of the book, which is “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” I have nothing good or bad to say about the way that the story of this family is presented within the book. But what the hell is a memoir of a culture? This is not a thing that exists, and it’s not a thing that people write. So when I criticize and critique Hillbilly Elegy, I’m doing it specifically from that reference point.
What I do object to is the larger points that are made on the basis of his experience. It’s part of a very strong resurgence of ideas about the culture of poverty. The salient feature about the culture-of-poverty idea is the belief that the actions of individuals, and their moral failures, are what is impeding progress, not just for people, but for the country at large—rather than systemic issues.
Also, to understand Hillbilly Elegy, you have to understand a little bit about Charles Murray, too. And that’s not a good thing. Charles Murray is a very infamous conservative intellectual. I also would describe him as a white supremacist. He’s most famous for a 1994 book called The Bell Curve, which posited that African Americans were predisposed to lower intelligence, and this, in essence, was holding the country back in that various programs like welfare and public assistance were harming the country because they encouraged the over-breeding of the undesirable. The hallmark of Charles Murray’s career is trying to understand the genetic and cultural failings of poor people, specifically poor African Americans, but sometimes switching the script to poor whites to mitigate the racist origins and applications of his beliefs.
In op-eds and interviews, J.D. Vance references one specific Charles Murray book called Coming Apart: The State of White America, and it’s easy to see imprints of his work within Hillbilly Elegy. If we get back to the idea that what J. D. Vance has written is supposed to function as a memoir of a culture, then we look to see how he defines that culture. And what we find is that he has a particular obsession with the exaggerated qualities of Scots-Irish heritage and Appalachia. So he’s a subscriber to the myth that there’s a monoculture in Appalachia, that all the white people here have the same ethnic credentials, and that we have been shaped by this common heritage. His argument is that over time, this heritage has become degraded, and all the good things that were characteristic of this heritage—which are not true, but he says honor, bravery, that kind of thing—have given way to alcoholism, and addiction, and self-defeat.
In this particular moment, it’s also become an argument that there’s a deeper truth to poverty. That it’s not just something that is circumstantial or systemic, but rather it’s something that has to do with a deficient culture. And, again, that’s not a new idea. In the 1930s, there were a number of ethnographic studies about the deficient culture of “mountain people” that had significant consequences. I wrote about what happened in the wake of one such study, Hollow Folk. The authors presented mountaineers, who happened to be poor people living on very valuable land, as possessing a deficient bloodline and backwards culture and as such entangled the fate of at least two generations of mountaineers with the eugenics movement. I believe that arguments about deficiencies of culture never travel far behind arguments about deficient genetics, and it was alarming to hear those returned thanks to the popularity of Hillbilly Elegy and J.D. Vance’s obsession with “hillbilly culture,” which obviously recalls unpleasant stereotypes but also a deeper and darker history.
Guernica: You argue that Hillbilly Elegy’s underlying message that poverty stems from a defective culture promotes the broader argument that public assistance isn’t in the best interest of the country, which is also a conservative line of thinking. And so, you were astonished when liberals also read and recommended Hillbilly Elegy.
Elizabeth Catte: What’s really interesting about Hillbilly Elegy is that it aligns conservative and liberal thinking about the region. I think it was surprising to me, and it still is surprising, that so many smart liberal people bought stock into this narrative about Trump Country and about the power of poor people to make and create presidents. [Liberal] people, for example, who in my life as a former academic would never think of assigning anything by Charles Murray for their students to read, are suddenly consuming lots of analyses about Appalachia that have Charles Murray’s fingerprints all over them.
In general, Appalachia is a place that people project escapism onto, and they use it to compartmentalize away hard truths that the country shares. There is a history of doing this. A very grim example of this compartmentalization occurred around 2004, when news broke about the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. Media fixated on the crimes of Lynndie England, a woman with family roots in West Virginia and Kentucky, and she became a bad apple that had been poisoned by her “trailer trash” upbringing. This was the narrative preferred by those who didn’t want to talk about systemic problems in the military or the consequences of occupation. For me, understanding why people need the things they believe about Appalachia to be true is just as important as understanding how far they are from reality.
Guernica: That reminds me of a section of your book in which you talk about how people—especially upper-middle-class whites—use false notions of Appalachia to “convince them of the righteousness of their lives.”
Elizabeth Catte: False notions of Appalachia pick up a lot of baggage about class, but also about race. And what we see in these notions is that the experience of poverty is deeply racialized, even when the subject is presumed to be a white demographic. This is why, for example, when the National Review starts writing about Appalachia in 2014, they come out of the gate with an article called “The White Ghetto.” For those who like to indulge in that brand of self-righteousness, it is always the poor who fail our country, never a country that has failed the poor, and race and class work together in that regard to make poverty seem innate among certain populations.
Guernica: You write that the way that some people choose to think about Appalachia also unburdens them from thinking seriously about racism.
Elizabeth Catte: There’s an often-cited quote from Hillbilly Elegy that says something like, We need to think about class and get out from underneath the racial prism. And some people [who read the book] were like, “Oh man, this is great. It doesn’t always have to be about race.” But this is when my alarm bells start ringing, because whiteness is a race. And also, why do we need it to be true that there are some things we really can’t understand about American culture without also setting aside race?
Guernica: You say that a helpful—though not perfect—way to understand the region is to see it as an “internal colony.” What do you mean by that?
Elizabeth Catte: The internal colony model emerged in the 1960s and ’70s as an anti-colonial way of understanding power. In the 1970s, a number of circumstances prompted people to think very hard about land ownership in Appalachia. And activists discovered, with not much surprise, that most of the land in Appalachia was controlled by outside corporations. Mining companies, extractive companies, timber companies, the federal government, and cultural institutions like Harvard University owned a lot of land in Appalachia.
In terms of having control over their surroundings, people in Appalachia had very little power. To build power, they started thinking about themselves as an internal colony that was there to facilitate extractive capitalism. And it was important because it allowed people to think very clearly about power, and to articulate a version of power that is found in Appalachia.
Of course, the big caveat is that it’s not completely appropriate to talk about people who are white as colonized. Because Appalachia is part of America, we have a history of forced indigenous migration here, and if we’re talking about who owns the land, indigenous people should be the biggest part of that conversation. And the internal colony model didn’t really do that.
Also, [the internal colony model] has a tendency to say that things that are wrong in Appalachia have all been imposed upon us by people outside the region. But that’s not precisely true, because there are lots of compliant local politicians and business leaders who have facilitated extraction within the region. And, more broadly, the internal colony model doesn’t really help us address things like racism and sexism and homophobia that happen in the region.
So I prefer to say that Appalachia is the product of colonial logic. That is the belief that a people and a place can be used for a specific purpose in the accumulation of wealth. But [the internal colony model] did help me make sense of all the different types of power that are found here, and that are exerting pressure on our lives.
People in the region—not just people like J. D. Vance—have tried really hard to make a case for a kind of coherent Appalachia culture, and I’m not a person who would make that case. I would say that what we share is that many of us have been put through the same kind of historical forces and systems of power, and that’s what we have in common and can use as the basis for a shared identity or experience. And so, the internal colony model is not a perfect example of looking at Appalachia, but it is a good way to start thinking power, as opposed to culture.
Guernica: You write that moving away from Appalachia and living in Texas helped you see that some of the deepest problems in Appalachia were not region-specific, but more universal struggles for power, right?
Elizabeth Catte: My husband and I ended up in southeast Texas, which is the oil, petrochemical, and gas hub for not only the state of Texas, but also much of the country. And it was just so eye-opening for me because I’m from a region where we have lots of environmental issues from the coal industry. We also have lots of activism related to the coal industry. And you sort of think—and I think people want you to think—that the problems in Appalachia are unique to our region. I don’t think I could’ve written this book unless I had that experience of living in the middle of another ongoing environmental disaster. It helped me really think about the connections between the environment and capitalism in a way that I had not been thinking them because my ideas were so region-specific.
What we experienced was almost a mirror image of what we were experiencing in Appalachia, except that most of the people trapped in poverty, and experiencing the worst effects of environmental toxicity, were African American. And that was really profound for me, to learn about environmental racism, and also to see and speak to people who were trying to take on these big corporations like Exxon and Valero. I felt solidarity with those people, because in Appalachia we try to do the same with our current industry leaders. And we were just, like, holy wow. Imagine the power that can be built among people if they just realize that they have these connections.
Guernica: How did growing up in Appalachia inform your understanding of the region?
Elizabeth Catte: I grew up in east Tennessee, which is central Appalachia. My first awareness of having a regional identity was just as sort of a generic Southerner, but I quickly learned that I was Appalachian, and what people would call a hillbilly, because I grew up very close to the Smoky Mountains. If you’ve never been, it’s the site of a fantastic national park, but it’s also the site of this kind of unprecedented tourist creation that started in the 1930s, where you have really sophisticated folk arts programs with the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts next to very commercialized Appalachian culture in the form of hillbilly stereotypes. I grew up playing hillbilly put-put, and having dinner at Hillbilly Hank’s Café, and stuff like that. I processed my identity as this Appalachian person, often and early, through the lens of these very sensational tourist attractions that were meant to be consumed by other people.
So, that, I think, more than studying Appalachian history, sent me down the road to thinking about identity, and consumption, and tourist stays, and things of that nature which served me well when I actually did start learning about Appalachian history.
Guernica: Are you hopeful about the future of Appalachia?
Elizabeth Catte: It is incredibly hard to be hopeful about anything right now, but if I try to be more Zen about what’s happening, I remind myself that my grandparents’ generation thought they would always be under the thumb of the coal industry—an industry that tells us that we are disposable, that our bodies are less valuable than minerals. And that’s a grim way to understand yourself and your identity. They never imagined a day where we might be having conversations about the end of coal.
So I am excited that the end of coal is a thing that I will probably see in my lifetime. We are still here trying to work together to advance solutions that are not only really good for the region, but for the rest of the country, too. If we can find a way, for example, to create solutions for healthcare shortages and gaps in healthcare access, that will benefit people in lots of regions. If we find a way to arrest some of the environmental degradation left behind by the coal industry that will help people in other regions, too.
Really, I’m just happy to be here in the region, and it’s a place where I think I can do the best work that I can do.
Guernica: Imagine you meet someone who’s never been Appalachia, and they ask you to tell them about it. What impression do you want to leave them with?
Elizabeth Catte: My advice is to go and see it for yourself. This is the best advice that I can give to anybody who wants to understand Appalachia. Drive through it. Experience it. Come to your own opinions, and then go from there.
Window Light and Passengers, Charles / MGH. Via Flickr.
Before my thirtieth birthday I fell in love with a woman I shouldn’t have. She had a boyfriend and she lived in Paris with him. In fact, she had moved to Paris for him. The first time we kissed was the first night we spent together and I knew it was a mistake. I told myself it would only be a summer fling and there wasn’t nearly enough time for anything of real consequence to form.
Two days before she departed for Europe she called from a wedding to say she missed me. She called again during her stopover in Ireland to say she was thinking of me. Then she called me every night at 3:00 a.m. for the next two months, saying she was going to come back to the States to be with me. I believed her.
One morning, minutes before I had to teach a class, I got an email. He knows everything. When we spoke about it our conversation was short. He had forgiven her and she was going to stay and try to mend their relationship.
“Good luck,” I said. “I hope it all works out.”
“Is there anything I can say to change your mind?”
There wasn’t, of course, and though I hung up on that cold note I nearly bought a plane ticket I couldn’t afford to track her down until I realized that life—real life—isn’t a movie where you can will a thing into being. A year later, still heartsick and lonelier than I have ever been in my life, we agreed to meet in Harvard Square for a drink. I arranged the meeting because I had to know I hadn’t been crazy. I needed to know she loved me once. Cotton-mouthed, barely able to maintain eye contact, I listened as her soft voice and halting words said she was getting married in two weeks. A bereft silence filled the space between us but it was clear I hadn’t been wrong about us, which was no comfort at all.
We went for a walk, passing by a park where men were playing ultimate frisbee. Their footfalls and traffic were the soundtrack over our exhausted small talk and they drowned out our quiet words. We walked long enough that she got blisters on her heels and we had to stop while she inspected her raw skin. I fought the urge to help her, to tend to her as I would have a year before.
Our trains were headed in opposite directions and ten yards short of the T station she asked to hug me. I hadn’t held a woman since I last held her. She leaned into my embrace and I took in the ridges of her spine, the smell of her hair, and remembered the way our bodies had felt pressed together. Then she lifted her chin and kissed me. It was one of those days when the sun can’t shine any brighter and when the sky stretches so clean and blue I am filled with the wonder it wraps us in. Her skirt lifted in the breeze and I thought, we could be anyone to the thousands of strangers passing us in their cars or on the sidewalk. The couple that just found each other. The man and woman embarking on a future instead of closing their past. We could be the ones getting married in two weeks. There is so much hope in a kiss, but it wasn’t until then I became aware a kiss contained elegy, too.
The Kissis a bimonthly series curated by Brian Turner.
I haven’t seen Tom in three and a half years. He came home for a month or so in December of ’92—the day after Christmas—because his father was on the way out, bisected by a bad stroke and pining for the whole family to be around him at the send-off. That winter Tom was shaken, a little darker no question, but still more or less the same lad he had been when he was eighteen, and sixteen, and twelve: sombre, intense, obsessed with the notion of bearing witness to the kind of shit we couldn’t bring ourselves to watch on TV. The sort of fella who’d list off body counts from Central American combat zones like they were football scores, whose bucket list of travel destinations looked like the index page from a particularly bleak foreign policy dossier. That’s why he disappeared out there in the first place, barely a week after they declared a state of emergency. Just after the city went into total lockdown. Even after The Times told him point blank that they couldn’t afford to pay another foreign correspondent, especially a trainee who had yet to clock a single hour on the ground in an actual foreign country. Even after his GP told him Sarajevo was the last place on earth a person with cardiomyopathy should be holed up. Even after he promised us all he’d turn back at the border, once the photos were taken and the locals quizzed. It took him six days, two planes, a boat, and three trains to get into the city, while the rest of us sat at home trying to find the place on a sun-bleached primary school atlas. God only knows how he managed to sneak himself back in the second time.
“They’re getting cut down in the streets over there, Karl, blown apart in their homes,” he slurred to me over a flat pint of Guinness at a lock-in in Doyle’s the night before New Year’s Eve, “and it’s only going to get worse, if that’s even possible.”
One of the barmen I didn’t recognize was singing “Carrickfergus” with his head bowed and his eyes closed tight like a man battling the daybreak.
“Then why go back?” I asked him, because I didn’t understand. I still don’t really understand.
At the arrivals gate in Dublin airport we stand around with our sweating hands buried in our pockets. In the line next to me I can hear Baz crack his knuckles through the cloth, his thumb pressing them downward one by one like he did before any exam we ever took together. During the forty-minute car ride over, he chain-smoked five Marlboro Reds, a brand I have not seen him buy since that week Sarah Dalton thought she was pregnant. His predictions for this trip we’re about to take have already been somewhat less than optimistic.
“This is gonna be a disaster.”
“So you’ve said.”
“Listen, why do we have to go to America to do it? I fucking hate America.”
“You can’t hate America, Baz. You’ve never been to America.”
“Well, I hate Americans.”
“You only hate Americans because that Brandy girl called you a hick.”
“I’m from Dublin! How can I be a hick if I’m from fucking Dublin?”
“Well, if anyone can find a way.”
“What’s the point of flying halfway across the world if I’m just gonna strike out with all the birds there?”
“You strike out with all the birds here.”
“But at least that only costs me the price of a taxi home.”
“This may come as a shock to you, Barry, but pulling birds is not the primary objective of this trip.”
Makeshift cereal-box placards bounce up and down around us. In a rainbow of Crayola colours, they read “Welcome Home, Charlie,” “Corporal Brian Clarke,” “DADDY!!!” Every few seconds someone else catches a teary pair of eyes and the same broad smile spreads across another weary face. A stocky soldier in crumpled fatigues takes a knee and catches his daughter in his arms. She’s dropped a naked Barbie doll on the floor by the conveyor belt where the last beat-up duffel bag—Tom’s, I suppose—is resigning itself to another slow rotation. I want to take a picture of her, vice-gripped to her parents’ legs as they embrace, but Baz scoops up the doll and holds it out to her before I can get the lens cap off my camera. For a second it seems like the girl doesn’t understand what this tan piece of plastic, its bleached blonde hair pig-tailed with human-sized scrunchies, is. Baz holds Barbie by the tips of her feet—for the sake of decency, I imagine—and seems unsure of what else he can do to clarify. He coughs, and turns the doll right-way up, as if positioning is where the confusion lies. Then the girl’s huge brown eyes light up wide and she grabs the doll with both hands.
“What do you say, darlin’?” Her father’s voice is hoarse and soft.
And then they’re gone. Out through the stuttering automatic doors and into the street. What comes next? They’ll drive back slowly to a small starter home that’s cleaner tonight than it’s ever been. The little girl will want to tell her daddy everything that’s happened to her over the past week, because that’s all she’ll remember, and her father will listen and do everything he can to keep his eyelids from drooping shut. When she finally falls asleep this man in the crumpled fatigues and his wife will want to strip down and press so close into one another that they can’t breathe, but they won’t. Not tonight. Tonight, they’ll collapse on top of the covers with only their shoes removed, with the lights still on, and sleep forehead to forehead. They’ll both sleep longer than they have in months, until the vibrations of tiny feet jumping up and down on the bed rise them. And then they’ll all start living again.
Still no sign of Tom. Five minutes have passed since the last passenger emerged from the tunnel. I’m taking deep, slow breaths through my nose, trying to calm myself. I can picture him fetal on the floor of the airplane bathroom, his long limbs curled around the cistern, refusing to leave.
“Why do they always take the clothes off, do you think?” Baz asks, his head jerking toward the automatic doors.
“Off of the Barbies. Why do the girls always take the clothes off? We never stripped down the Action Men and dragged them round by the hair, did we?”
“Action Men don’t have hair.”
“You know what I mean. What’s the point in spending the extra money on Coke-Addled Divorcée Barbie, or whatever the fuck, if you’re just gonna throw away all the special gear anyway?”
“Christ, I don’t know, Baz. She’s a kid. Why do kids do anything?”
“I’m just saying it’s a waste of money. They should sell the things naked and save themselves the hassle.”
“Maybe suggest that to the managers at Toys ‘R’ Us, so. Go up to the desk and say you’d feel more comfortable if they stripped the dresses off all the Barbies.”
“As a cash-saving measure.”
“You holding up all right?”
“It’s fine. He’ll be out when he’s out.”
Tom rounds the corner as a charcoal-gray ghost. He’s gaunt in a way I never thought possible for a man his size. Heavy bags sag down to the tops of his high cheekbones, like dog tongues of hollowed-out bogland. Three years under siege and six months in a padded room will do that to you I suppose. Baz and I tense up, like cadets awaiting inspection. His lank mane of dark hair, now slashed from the roots with silver, drags like a shadow across his left eye socket, emptied for over a year now. A patch made of thin black felt covers what I imagine to be the tunnel to a very private room, the part of his brain that stores the worst bits of it: the shelling; the snipers; the toes and fingertips and tufts of hair poking out from mounds of fresh rubble like spring saplings, and who the fuck knows what else. Tom stares at us for a full ten seconds before he realizes who we are. I left a message with the clinic’s receptionist to say we’d be there to drive him to his mam’s, but maybe he never got it. Or maybe we’ve changed more than I think. Inching his way through the not-quite-a crowd, grimacing, as if there’s a steady wind blowing against him.
“Oh, sweet Christ, will you look at the state of him!”
“Quiet, Baz, for fuck’s sake,” I hiss.
“He’s gonna kill himself. This is actually going to happen on our watch. Again.”
“Stop. I’m serious. No more of that talk.” He must really be panicking to even brush up against this subject.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to… but I’m telling you, this is a mistake.”
“This is not a mistake.”
“Karl. Look at the lad. We won’t be a night into this trip before he opens up his wrists in a hotel bathtub somewhere.” He taps his head twice with his knuckles and blesses himself.
“Have you developed Tourette’s in the last few minutes?”
“He looks like a Bond villain. You’re not concerned?”
“Of course I’m fucking concerned,” I hiss through a grin, because he’s almost within earshot now, “but you need to calm down.”
“I need to not have his mam cursing me out in the middle of his funeral, is what I need. You know what that aul wagon will say: ‘He was fine when he was in Bosnia. It wasn’t till he got home to that gurrier Barry Connolly that he got down on himself.'”
Tom moves in measured steps. It’s taken him an age to walk the few paces across the green linoleum floor to where we’re standing, a distance every other passenger has covered in something approaching a run. We don’t hug because that’s not really how we are, and because even in his current state he must know how estranged we’ve become. Still, I put my hand on his shoulder as we shake and try to stare through whatever fog he lives under now. His hand is limp and calloused and dwarfs mine. Baz basically mugs him for his bags and tells him that it’s been way too long, way too long, way too long. We are now the last three people standing under the florescent lights of the baggage claim. Their surgical glow exposes about a dozen tiny white slashes that cluster around Tom’s right cheek and run to the curve of his jawline. He smiles weakly at us, and it’s genuine, I think, but he still hasn’t said anything. Why hasn’t he said anything? Another horrendous silence descends. Baz’s eyes are screaming at me. This, just this simple social awkwardness, is his nightmare. I’ve seen him all but pass out in similar circumstances. Tom brushes a strand of hair away from his face.
“How are you, lads?” Whispered, but it’s him all the same.
“All right, man, yeah. You?”
“I’m OK.” If ever a man did not look OK.
“Are you hungry? Will we grab a bite to eat here before we head on?”
“No, I’m fine. Just a bit tired. I haven’t been sleeping so well.”
“I’m not surprised, sure you’re coming from a fucking war zone, aren’t you!”
Baz actually grabs his mouth after he says this. I think I see a tiny smile departing Tom’s face as I swivel back around but I can’t be sure. I look at Baz to see if he caught more of it but he’s busy examining his feet so I just let it hang for a few seconds before gesturing toward the exit.
“We’d better get going, all right, don’t want to have your mam waiting up all night for us.”
“No rush. I don’t think she sleeps that much either.”
Tom stops walking then, drops slowly onto his haunches, and unties the fat rope knot at the top of his bag. For a second I think he’s going to produce a gift, until I realize just how ridiculous that would be. A plastic bag full of bloodied rubble and an extra-dull butter knife from the nut house canteen? Tom, you really shouldn’t have! No, he’s checking on something, turning it over in his hands to make sure it didn’t break in transit. A battered metal box, tinted with rust, about the size of a small toaster. When he’s satisfied that all is well, he pushes it deep into the center of the bag, ties up the opening, and rises without explanation.
I pull into the parking lot of the Unclaimed Baggage Center on a gray afternoon befitting a temple of lost things. Lost things come to Scottsboro, Alabama. Well, not all lost things, but lost things in lost luggage.
But I am not lost. I have driven through mountains, by fireworks megastores (each one always the “last” and “biggest”), past dead dogs rotting on the side of the road, to Scottsboro, and one of Alabama’s top tourist attractions. The Unclaimed Baggage Center itself looks like a standard office park, apart from the blue and orange sign shaped like a suitcase—its walls are lined with neatly trimmed hedges, and two American flags frame the entrance. A glider, several rocking chairs, and hanging planters suggest the front porch of a house rather than a business.
When I traveled to Montreal several years ago, my suitcase didn’t arrive. It is a strange feeling to walk out of an airport without a bag. Without our luggage, we’re set loose in the world unprepared. Passing under signs in French, I felt more than empty-handed: I felt dangerously light, as if I didn’t belong where I was. The next day, I went shopping and bought a black sweater and black slacks—I might have been in mourning for my suitcase, which was delivered to my hotel the next day.
We take for granted that we get to keep our luggage with us when we travel. It may be taken away from us for periods of time, but it does not generally travel separately from us, as in the past. The transport of luggage used to function more like the mailing of a package. And like a package, trunks were banged about a bit, sometimes causing their contents to be damaged.
“Would you believe it my trunk is come already; and, what completes the wondrous happiness, nothing is damaged,” wrote Jane Austen, in a letter in 1808. The humorous hyperbole of “wondrous happiness” is classic Austen, but it also hints at the very real anxiety. It is wondrous that her possessions are not damaged, and she is relieved. In 1814, she was not so lucky: “My Trunk did not come last night, I suppose it will this morning; if not I must borrow Stockings & buy Shoes & Gloves for my visit. I was foolish not to provide better against such a Possibility. I have great hope however that writing about it in this way, will bring the Trunk presently.” Here, she jokes that she might conjure the trunk into existence by writing, thus remedying the problem of her self-proclaimed foolishness.
Austen got her things back. When someone doesn’t, their things go to the Unclaimed Baggage Center, and the shoppers who flock there. The 40,000-square-foot center opened in 1970 and annually draws over eight hundred thousand visitors, from over forty countries. Its status as a major attraction is underscored by a display of tourist brochures at the entrance for local vineyards, zoos, skydiving, golfing, caverns, state parks, and the North Alabama Hallelujah Trail of Sacred Places. You can buy souvenir T-shirts. The departments in the main store include jewelry, sporting goods, formalwear, books, electronics (“Purchase Limit 3 Laptops Per Guest Per Day”), men’s and women’s clothing, and (of course) luggage. There is a Starbucks. A separate building—the “Etc.” store—houses children’s items and housewares.
When I arrive, the parking lot is halfway full, and several campers testify to the store’s status as a vacation destination. A sign off to the side of the building indicates that there is more RV parking out back. Next door is Alabama Tires and a Citgo. Across the street is a T and W Unclaimed Baggage, which looks rather run-down in comparison. (One Unclaimed Baggage employee describes it as “a knock-off.”) Behind the center is Cedar Hill Cemetery, where, according to their website, twenty of the city’s sixty-three acres are available at $400 per grave or four grave plots for $1,400. There are graves from the Civil War and the graves of some of the city’s first families. And dogwood trees.
The center receives bags from airlines, bus lines, Amtrak, cruise ships, rental car companies, and resorts. The center also sells unclaimed cargo. But airline travel accounts for the majority of the bags. According to the website, 99.5 percent of bags are picked up at baggage claim. But then there is the other 0.5 percent. In 2012, over 1.8 million bags were lost, stolen, or damaged by major US airlines on domestic flights. This means that slightly over three bags were mishandled per 1,000 passengers. Regional and budget airlines tend to have the worst track records. According to the website of the Unclaimed Baggage Center, airlines conduct “an extensive three-month tracing process” to try to find the unclaimed bags’ owners, and claims are paid on the bags that can’t be found. Then they sell the “unclaimed baggage property”—now no longer the property of anyone—to the center.
Courtesy of Susan Harlan.
The center’s website describes these bags as “orphaned.” The word suggests that a bag’s owner is its parent, and that this parent has died. The terms “lost” and “unclaimed” are used interchangeably, but “lost” implies that the bag was misplaced, as you might lose your keys, while “unclaimed” implies that it has been been abandoned. This abandonment is related to its status as lost, but its status as lost can’t entirely account for it.
These orphaned bags are bought sight-unseen and arrive by the tractor-trailer load at the center’s processing facility, where they are opened, sorted, and priced. Over seven thousand new items arrive every day. Clothing is laundered at an in-house facility, the largest in northern Alabama. Electronics are tested and wiped of personal data. Fine jewelry is cleaned and appraised. Bags are opened at 2:30 pm, Mondays through Saturdays, for the public, so you can peer into a stranger’s suitcase before everything is removed. The staff sorts out “the best items” for retail, and approximately half of the remaining items are donated through their Reclaimed for Good program. The other half, “unsuitable for retail or donation,” are thrown away.
This process is represented on the website by an image of an open suitcase; its contents are divided into the three categories of SELL, DONATE, and TRASH lower down on the page. The category of “trash” includes a pacifier, a Sharpie, paper clips, a rubber band, a tube of toothpaste and a toothbrush, a small brown Field Notes notebook, and a folded piece of paper that appears to be a receipt. That one-quarter of this lost property is worthless strikes me as outrageously sad. You can’t do much with someone else’s toothbrush. Or with her notebook.
But these bags also contain odd and extraordinary things. The entrance to the center is designated as a “museum” of found objects, presided over by a portrait of founders Doyle and Sue Owens. Sue is seated in a yellow armchair and Doyle stands above her, with his hand on her shoulder. To the right is a display of “Religious Objects,” and to the left the puppet goblin Hoggle from the 1986 film Labyrinth, who arrived at the center in 1997 in “deteriorating condition” and was restored. These displays continue in the store itself, where particular treasures are mounted high on the walls: moose antlers, Underwood typewriters, and musical instruments, including a Russian Domra and an Afghan Rubab.
These objects are accompanied by signs that identify and describe them. A “Handmade Ship Model, HMS Surprise” includes a brief history of the Napoleonic Wars and a picture of Russell Crowe in the film Master and Commander. An “Antique Flirting Fan” from 2010 is assigned a story: “This beautifully hand-painted fan from the 1800s shows classical scenes of youths at their leisure. Gilded in gold with intricately carved bone sticks, this Victorian fan must have belonged to a lady of significant social standing.” These objects are not for sale.
I stand by the rows of pale gray shopping carts and look at my map. Rows of jeans stretch out in front of me, folded in half and hung on clip hangers. I walk through the section for uniforms, past of a vat of lace-trimmed leg warmers (a shopper has abandoned a motel-room-style black pleather Holy Bible among these garments), and into the formalwear room, which is filled with long, brightly-colored dresses that bring to mind prom in the ‘90s. Mass-produced wedding dresses—David’s Bridal sort of stuff—are hung six deep against the wall, all sequins, lace, and taffeta. I wonder if they have been worn. I wander past racks of button-down shirts, robes, and pajamas. Some of the store’s most expensive items—an ivory lace Chloé dress, size 12 ($849.99; Retails $3,195.00) and a “Sherazade Trunk” by the Barrel Shack ($189.99; Retails: $1,450.00)—are singled out and arranged on top of the racks, set apart from a sea of everyday things as reminders of the treasures lurking. One woman looks up at the Chloé dress.
“How could someone not claim a Chloé dress?” she asks her friend, shaking her head. “Amazing.”
The vast majority of items are ordinary. Costume jewelry. Blouses, dresses, T-shirts. Rows of point-and-shoot cameras and mass-market paperbacks. The things of everyday life. But the tension between the ordinary and the extraordinary—not far from the café is an intricately carved dark wood frame labeled “Nineteenth-Century Swiss Black Forest $1350.00”—gives the center its character. In fine jewelry, the cases are filled with bangle bracelets, watches, pearl necklaces, cameo brooches and pendants, gold crosses encrusted with diamonds, and gold and silver chains of all lengths. I survey the price tags, which are strangely precise: $103.99, $66.99, $172.99, $260.99, $500.99.
A man next to me asks the saleswoman if he can see a cameo ring, and she takes it out of the case and hands it to him.
“This one is really pretty,” she says. “We had another one like this that was a real bargain. It got snapped up.”
He looks at it carefully and turns it over. “Yes, that’s real nice.”
“It’s a beauty. And there’s this other one with the pearl, which has a really unique setting.”
She hands him the other ring, which he slips on the end of his finger, as far as it will go, as if contemplating what it would look like on a woman’s hand.
“Hmm,” he says. “This one is a find.”
I walk over to the scarf section. Another saleswoman notices my ring—a skull—and smiles.
“Do you like skulls?” she asks.
“I do,” I say.
“Well, I have something to show you that just came in.” She walks away for a moment and returns holding a neatly folded black-and-white skull scarf.
“Alexander McQueen,” she says.
“Ooh. That’s lovely.”
“It just came in.”
“There are some beautiful things here, too,” I say, gesturing at the scarves in the case.
“Yes,” she says. “Hermès.”
One of the scarves is a deep blue, and I ask to see it. She takes it out and places it on the counter. I unfold it; the pattern is an angel.
I think of the suitcase that held this scarf. Maybe it was locked. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Suitcase locks have never struck me as a legitimate form of security. Perhaps it is their size: little metal things with a keyhole or combination locks with tiny buttons. They bring to mind the lock on your childhood diary: more symbolic than anything, more about proclaiming that something should not be opened rather than actually preventing it. And now the scarf is here, orphaned. I decide to buy it, and the saleswoman smiles approvingly.
The scarf is a splurge, but I don’t regret it. Now its value is determined by the market, not by sentiment or memory. When this scarf was taken out of its suitcase, its connection to its owner was lost. The suitcases that enclose these things also define them, and the things mean less, or differently, apart.
Courtesy of Susan Harlan.
Before I leave, I walk out behind the building to the cemetery and stand under the iron archway, watching people come and go from their cars, their shopping bags in hand. The great question of the Unclaimed Baggage Center is why the bags remain unclaimed. When I told people I was coming here, that is what they always asked: Why wouldn’t you claim your bag? Perhaps there is no answer to this question. Or the answer is that it is unanswered, unanswerable. The things at vintage stores or antiques malls have been brought there—sold or donated or found by the stores’ owners. Maybe the objects’ former owners died. Maybe their former owners moved and were getting rid of things. But Unclaimed Baggage is different. Perhaps it is not that the objects are lost, but that their owners are. These people hover over the center like ghosts, and no one knows what to say about them.
My scarf is folded in a white paper bag, the top stapled shut with the receipt. I take it out. It is soft. It doesn’t feel new; it feels like something that belonged to someone. I hold it up and look at it. The angel’s expression is inscrutable, almost childlike, her green wings resting behind her, her head crowned with flowers. She wears a cape that is parted and falls at her sides, but she doesn’t really have sides as she has no body. Inside the cape, in place of a torso, is a void. Nothing. Only a geometric pattern like broken glass. She flaps in the breeze, and I think she is the angel of unclaimed bags, taking everything into her nothingness.
I tie the scarf around my head to keep my hair out of my eyes while I drive home.
A version of this essay appears in Luggage, part of the Bloomsbury series “Object Lessons.”
“Life,” James Salter surmised, “passes into pages if it passes into anything.” Elsewhere: “Whatever we did, the things that were said, the dawns, the cities, the lives, all of it had to be drawn together, made into pages, or it was in danger of not existing, of never having been.” These lines are vintage Salter. They elevate the sensual to the existential in one quick, seductive flow. He wrote elegies—slight works of flying, sex, mountaineering—with equal stress placed on the form, and the act.
Yet the impulse these lines represent—writing to remember, to preserve—has an uneasy corollary in the title of Don’t Save Anything, the recently published collection of Salter’s nonfiction. It’s what he had told his wife, Kay Eldridge Salter—but while organizing her late husband’s papers after his death in June 2015, she found he had in fact saved everything: boxes upon boxes of notes and drafts. His mandate meant, it turns out, the opposite. Use everything, or risk its evaporation into ether.
Don’t Save Anything comprises thirty-five nonfiction pieces, the bulk of which appeared in travel or general interest magazines over a thirty-year period beginning in the mid-‘70s. Divided into ten sections, the book couches itself in Salter’s status as a writer’s writer by beginning and ending with essays on literature: its practitioners, its future. In the middle we have a motley assortment of pieces about sex, rock climbing, skiing, filmmaking, the military, and travels to France and Aspen.
At times meandering, and nearly always mandarin, Salter’s best writing is nevertheless cleansing, beautiful. An indelible feeling his work evokes is found in the fifth chapter of his memoir, Burning the Days. It is September, 1951. He is flying solo in an F-86 for the first time, high above Presque Isle, Maine. The heat, the mosquitos down below. The first thing he did was “climb to altitude and shut the engine off. The sky was suddenly flooded with silence, the metal deadweight.” That is why you read Salter, and that is how it feels when you do.
His books, while they have the air of erudition, are carnal. They read like the action screenplays, pellucid memories of nocturnal emission, crumbled receipts from Barneys or Zabar’s. Early in the collection, Salter writes this of Isaac Babel, one of his clearest influences: “Describe he is continually reminding himself, describe.” This mandate defines much of Salter’s output. He writes around things, about their appearances, their lingering aftermath. He staked his claim on a veneer—burnished, glaring—of tectonic depth. Fleeting glances, feelings already gone. Reading a newspaper in the lobby of a hotel without a name on day without a date; the afternoon sun coming down like cymbals—He trusted that these moments, if stacked one next to the other, comprise a life.
And yet, some moments are written better than others. Though it seems a welcome addition to Salter’s slight canon of six novels, two story collections, a memoir, and some odds and ends, Don’t Save Anything is primarily a desacralizing hagiography, a look at a revered writer under the mean exigencies of magazine work. The disappointment comes because these works are so similar to James Salter, it’s almost like he wrote them. The subject matter is the same, as is the brevity. But something’s off.
This yawning parallax not between writer and writing, but between writing and writing, is best seen in Salter’s profiles on Nabokov and Graham Greene, written for People in the 1970s. Nothing special. Nabokov wouldn’t even let him take notes! So we get absurd hooks like, “Novelists, like dictators, have long reigns.” We get Tiger Beat fodder like, “His favorite dish is bacon and eggs. They see no movies. They own no TV.” Throughout this collection, you’d be well-advised to skip anything that originally appeared in People. It’s a shame, because Salter’s editor there was Robert Ginna, his close friend. And while this might serve as a warning to keep your friends close and your editors closer, there is neither higher art nor urgency to the pieces. It’s fodder, timefill, and a reminder that Grub Street has always been there. And so, another central question is begged. Can a writer’s writer be a hack?
A blend of travel, profile, and sports writing, the other pieces feature the type of prose you get in airline magazines: sealed, and read in a similarly encapsulated environment. From this impressive distance, the world’s sprawl is succinct. Salter’s fabled brevity, elsewhere so magisterial, here feels tailored to the word count. Note such leads as “Iowa City, along its river, is a beautiful town,” which begins a profile on Frank Conroy, or, beginning a piece on Eisenhower: “He possessed, like his boss, an invincible smile.” Short and snappy, they do what they’re supposed to. They lead. They hook. But they pale in comparison to the pyrotechnic bursts of his fiction.
“September. It seems these luminous days will never end.” So begins his famous erotic novella A Sport and a Pastime. That quick one-two, we’re rolling, is all but trademarked. He begins a dinner party in Light Years with: “November evening, immemorial, clear.” Burning the Days: “In Rome, the heat bore down.” These sentences are plucked at random; there are plenty more like them. It’s not just the brevity, the sensual descriptions, the brisk, or the casual dialogue that bring a feeling of the screen to the writing. Salter’s sentences are lenticular. Seen head-on, they appear disjointed, redundant. It is in the reading, the remembering, that they come alive.
Less a primer in style, Don’t Save Anything serves as a refracted chronology of sorts that, paired with Burning the Days, creates a provisional biography of his writing career—it will have to suffice until a proper bio is written. A batch of capable pieces about rock climbing could be seen as extended note-taking for his 1979 novel Solo Faces. Similarly, his pieces on downhill skiing fed into the screenplay for Downhill Racer. One is initially puzzled as to the germination of “At the Foot of Olympus: Jarvik, Kolff, and DeVries,” an engaging, if dated triple-profile on a team of scientists attempting to create a synthetic heart. Then, toward the end, Salter mentions Threshold—a “chilling” movie about a synthetic heart. Guess who wrote the screenplay?
Beginning in the mid-‘60s and lasting for about fifteen years, this screenwriting period of his life is beautifully treated in “Passionate Falsehoods,” an adaption of a chapter from Burning the Days published by the New Yorker in 1997. New York and Rome, Robert Redford and Federico Fellini. Pasta-themed varieties of fellatio found in Bologna, the capital of both pasta and fellatio. (“Rigate, for instance, which is pasta with thin, fluted marks. For that the girls gently use their teeth.”) It’s all louche technicolor, and would overwhelm if not for the distanced, fractured mode of recollection. The period details are often thrilling, disquieting. At one point, John Huston’s mistress appears. “I liked the way she pronounced ‘cashmere,’ like the state in India, Kashmir.” The New Yorker nixed the next bit of characterization: “She didn’t like Negroes, Arabs, or certain cities; often that she had never been to.”
His screenwriting period ended on a stone beach in Nice. In a pair of Battistoni shoes, he’s exhausted, washed up, “like an alcoholic, like Malcolm Lowry.” It took too much energy, expended in the wrong direction. “Passionate Falsehoods,” and this long decade of his life, are summed up several pages later: “To write of people thoroughly is to destroy them, use them up. I suppose this is true of experience as well—in describing the world, you extinguish it— and in any recollection much is reduced to ruin. Things are captured and at the same time drained of life, never to shimmer or give back light again.” I don’t believe him, and I have a feeling that he doesn’t believe himself. But that is his power, and his fatal flaw. He can make anything sound wonderful. It entrances to the point that you don’t really care what he’s saying.
More than descriptions of luminous light and glorious glories, sex seeps through all of Salter’s work. Not just the act itself; touch, romance—all is rendered lithe and fecund. But yes, mainly the act itself, in all its glorious varieties. A Sport and a Pastime delights in depictions of fellatio and anal sex, risqué for the time. “In his clothing he conceals, like an assassin, a small tube of lubricant.” His characters “fuck in lovers’ sunshine, in the midst of the party.” And while marriages erode and hearts are broken, it makes for writing that is—what’s the go-to?—luminous. Writing’s writing.
Which makes it doubly troubling to come across smarmy dross like the near-entirety of the “Men and Women” section of the book. Take the lead essay, “Younger Women, Older Men,” which was published in Esquire in 1992. The essay features turgid, lecherous vignettes starring young women and older men. One begins, in gruesome self-parody, “The floor bare, music blaring. Aerobics.” We see a girl with a “slight tense sinew up where her legs join, the apex…. Her movements are youthful, ecstatic, hands thrown out loosely as her leg sweeps free, fine hair leaping. From time to time she looks back and smiles at a dumpy woman behind her, her mother.” Passages like this, with all the erotic luminance of a Fleshlight, pad a frilly ode to the “intoxicating relationship between experience and inexperience.”
Likewise, “When Evening Falls,” a history of French brothels published that same year in GQ, would be perfectly salvageable if he didn’t start off with a disconnected anecdote that reads like something from Penthouse Letters. “A few nights ago at dinner, they were talking about an ardent young feminist. She was good-looking, with long hair, and went around in tight jeans and high calf-leather boots…”
Salter’s other mainstay, writing about place, is represented by sections on France and Aspen. In “Almost Pure Joy,” Salter and his wife travel to Paris to give birth to their son. They bring wine to rub on the newborn’s lips, so that he’ll always have a taste for France. Endearing, but not as much as the author wandering the pre-dawn streets of the 16th Arrondissement, trying to make out the street signs, before coming into the apartment and telling Sumo, their Welsh Corgi, that he has a little boy. The articles on Aspen, written for publications like Rocky Mountain Magazine, Colorado Ski Country USA, and, simply, Aspen Magazine, are what you’d expect: Look how our little town has changed. Can you believe they used to let dogs go around sans leash? Though at times overly elegiac, his descriptions of France are matched by the history and breadth of the country, but when he turns the same devotional eye on Aspen, which, no offense to Aspen, is no France, it gets to be a little much. Most frustrating is panning through these repetitive tourism-board pieces searching for a bit of gold, then finding it.
In “Once and Future Queen,” the first of four essays dedicated to Aspen, Salter stumbles, as though it were a chunk of quartz in the snow, upon a summary of his life’s work. “There is something called the true life which I cannot describe and which perhaps varies as one sees it from different angles and at different times. At one point it is travel, at another a certain woman, at another a house somewhere with a view you will worship till you die. It is a life apart from money and to the side of ambition, a life lived in one way or another for beauty. It does not last indefinitely, but the survivors are usually not poorer for it.”
Lines like these, the shining ones, do a disservice to the rest of the work in Don’t Save Anything. Salter makes himself look bad. It’s understandable. He wrote by revision, over time.
A Sport and a Pastime, less than two hundred pages, took three years. On a practical level, he wrote by hand, then typed, then went back and retyped, retyped again. “The whole joy of writing comes from the opportunity to go over it and make it good, one way or another,” he said in his Paris Review interview. This is the writer who rewrote, and republished, his second novel thirty-nine years later.
Polished writing is the result of polishing—a slow, meditative process at odds with the time and monetary constraints of magazine writing. And so, to return to that earlier notion of diminishment. Perhaps this collection is more humanizing than lessening: an honest, mixed portrayal of a great writer’s inevitable mediocrities, stretched out over three decades of life in the sun. In a profile of Lady Antonia Fraser, Salter quotes Thomas Carlyle: “A well-written life is almost as rare as a well-spent one.” Exceedingly so. This collection serves as a warning for the deadline-pressed working writer, praying to the gods of the 1099. Salter saw his journalism as a way to make a living. But life passes into pages, and, for better or worse, the pages remain.