A Year in Books--RUNNING EAST
I have been slacking.
Hmm, perhaps 'slacking' isn't the best word. Let's try this; I've been busy. Yeah, busy. That feels less self deprecating. How quickly my goal to read one book per week has crumbled. Upon writing this, I have finished 5 books and am currently writing my 3rd review. That leaves me about 3 weeks/books behind my original goal. It's not a tremendously bad situation, I do have a week long break from work coming next week, but nevertheless being the type that is hyper-critical of myself it has caused an undue amount of stress on myself. That was until I originally sat down to write this review about 4 days ago and was dealt a blow that brought me right back down to reality--bare with me and we'll get there.
My story with this book begins with a friend of mine, Mike. I met Mike at a writer's conference in New Bedford two years ago. We started talking, I believe about what's good to eat/drink in NB, and quickly found comradeship. Sometime last year Mike had invited me to a reading he was doing in Providence at a man named Theo Green's house. He told me Theo was also a publisher, and that he had even put out work by the great William Burroughs (my favorite of the Beats--excluding Kenneth Patchen, who wasn't really a Beat, but some would argue that he should be included with them blah blah blah whatever who cares anyway). Theo lives in a beautiful historical house filled with art and ephemera called the Purple Citadel.
When I first arrived at the Citadel I felt welcome, though I knew only Mike who was the center of attention that evening as he was reading work from his latest book, "Vagabond." I met many interesting people, including Theo's partner who is a professor at my alma mater Holy Cross. I indulged in some cheese, crackers, and other tasty bites and had conversations with many of the attendees. Eventually Mike introduced me to Theo who showed me some of his art, told me about his experiences with publishing Burroughs--whom he said was a surprisingly reserved and almost shy individual--and with whom I eventually traded books. I gave him a copy of my books Other People and OUROBOROS and he gave me a copy of his work, Running East.
Theo was tall, had sunglasses and a large hat on, and was drinking an impressive amount of boxed wine--a pattern I heard many of the regular Citadel folk lovingly joking about and commenting on as I wandered through their masses. They were all very welcoming people and very open people, unsurprised to see a stranger in their midst. I felt safe there, and warm. I didn't see the segmentation of people into posses, no one was standing in the corner judging the other folk, it was a happening in the truest sense.
Later, we were treated to a reading by Mike. His writing is wonderful. He takes you with him on his journeys, leading you through his loose vignettes, welcoming you to play voyeur to his experience. His is the type of writing that makes you desire to speak with the author, non-confrontational and observant. The last I saw Mike that night was when I was heading out. He was alone on The 2nd floor porch of the Citadel, sitting out looking at the sky. I intruded, popping my head out to see him and genuinely thanking him for inviting me.
Just a few days ago as I finally sat down to write my review of Theo's work, I shot Mike an e-mail. I told him that I had frequently seen him in my thoughts lately, and that I was wondering how he was doing. He responded back a few hours later with news that a tragic loss had befallen him. It was a paralyzing e-mail to read. He wrote as if he was at peace with it (or at least coming to some sense of it) and explained that he was grateful to have known the individual.
I was pretty heartbroken thinking about his loss. It got me thinking about my partner, Steph, and how my world would be destroyed if I lost her. I thought of our pets, and imagined what losing them tragically would be like. I was thrown back into losses from my past, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, a beloved dog. Because of Mike's news, my perspective changed--or rather, it was shifted. All of my stress at work and my bashing-the-head-against-the-wall frustration with my inability to complete my reading on time was put into perspective, and I had a major realization about the nature of my year of reviewing books in the first place--a feeling that was reinforced in a conversation with my good friend Dan.
Dan was telling me about the next piece he is working on in his A Year of Listening Dangerously series. He was a explaining how a recent discovery during his research had led him to restructure his whole piece, sending him into doubt about what his role was in writing the piece; was he the curator of a singular theme or purpose? Or was he, in fact, the subject, the theme and purpose of his writing serving as the context for his perspective? We talked about it on and off for the majority of the evening, realizing at some point that what we were talking about was the editorial vs. article debate, and how things like gonzo journalism and criticism can ride that line. It was in this discussion--compounded with Mike's deeply serious news--that made me reconsider my role in my writing.
I had approached the first two reviews with a certain seriousness, abandoning my typical long diatribes and deep personal information pulls in favor of staying close to the source of the material. I'd throw in some bits of personality while mostly just sharing my opinion on a book. Something in those reviews didn't feel quite right, I had felt stunted when writing them, like trying to build an airplane in a one car garage--frankly i think this feeling may have fused with my busy personal schedule and contributed to my hesitation to read and write a new piece. I wasn't completely enjoying myself and didn't feel like I was writing like "me"--whoever that is.
Now, this is not to say that every piece of A Year in Books will be as long as this one--or as meandering. It's my way of saying that I think I have discovered what it is I'm supposed to write about here, that being my relationship with the books and how they have or have not changed the way I look at things. Which finally brings me to my newest read, Theo Green's Running East.
If his book and internet presence is any indication, Theo identifies first as a painter. Reading Running East, one can't help but notice how this discipline informs his writing style. Running East is written in tiny vignettes, short paragraphs, no capital letters, lots of asterisks, purposeful misspellings, and ampersands--sketches, brush strokes if you will. In it, he traces his time from growing up in California, Oakland specifically, to his current days in Providence, with a loose frame tale of driving a Lincoln MKZ across the country. We weave in and out of thoughts and recollections. You travel with the author as he pulls up notes from what feel like previous lives. There's sections that feel like a more reserved and introspective version Hunter Thompson, others ring with that just-so quality the Beats possessed, the heavy "mental editing" a friend called it, where the most of the work is done before the words are put to paper and what you're left with are fragments, carefully considered fragments that leave you with just enough to hold onto, but not enough to get bogged down with.
Like the beats, there is some name dropping, mentioning a brief acquaintanceship with the Crumbs, famous artists Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, where the author claims to never have read their work and addresses them with an eye impartial to the influence of their celebrity. I have a hard time believing that the author was so tuned out from the mainstream that he never read any of the Crumb's work, particularly as a young man into the, shall we say, alternative scene of the 60s and 70s in California.
It's in these sections where the charm of the work drops and starts to feel self-congratulatory, forcing the next few sections to be considered through this lens, and what originally felt like a fun, interesting breeze of a read feels like a bit of an I'm too cool-type slog. This feeling also returns with some of his talk of relationships with various women, even referring to his longtime partner as a paramour--a word that can carry the connotation of an illicit relationship. At one point he describes the people in a house he is staying at as "hangerson." This style and tone of writing tries to make the reader feel as if the author was never a "hangeron" to anything himself, with maybe the exception of his healthy appreciation of wine. This style of writing often makes you feel like the author is never subject to any cult of personality, always freely floating on his own, and either too cool to ever fall into any sort of a proper Hegelian master-slave relationship with anybody.
Generally speaking, I enjoyed this book, and I enjoyed Theo's perspective, just as I had enjoyed talking with him during Mike's reading at the Purple Citadel. In my fiction writing, I tend to shy away from some of the tendencies that Theo demonstrates, but that comes from a place of sharing those and wanting to indulge in them as well. Perhaps I don't share the same self confidence that Mr. Green does. I should be clear that I have also experienced an aversion to this type of style before, primarily with Kerouac and other writers of his stylistic philosophy. You know the whole bullshit story about him doing continuous writing and having a full scroll that he just dropped off with a publisher? That sort of thing, the self mythologizing, not ym bag, man. And when compared to that extreme, Theo's use is minimal, not enough for me to put the book down and walk away, but enough to give me pause, especially when I had been enjoying the rest of the writing so very much. Maybe it's a painter thing.
Continuing my strange scale of bananas, I'd give Running East a solid 3.7 bananas out of 5. Great for a quick, easy read where you can tether yourself to a big personality and be carried across both the country and time.
The next book I will be reviewing for A Year in Books is Action Bronson's Fuck, That's Delicious.