Where I’m Calling From: A Little Manifesto

I grew up in the U. S. Army. I learned early that we, the entire family, were “in the Army.” Only we didn’t call it the Army. We called it the Service. We were “in the Service,” and I grew up in the Service. There is a difference. David Petraeus was in the Army, but George Marshall was in the Service.

I never finished college because of alcoholism, which came close to killing me. I had my last drink on 2 November 1977. It was some time before I could write again, and even longer before I could write the kind of thing – fiction – that I wanted to write. Fiction is among the writings that universities label “creative.”

But this label is a misnomer.

All writing is creative. Most writing creates money, but not much of it on a per-writer basis. Enough to live on, if you live fairly simply. MFA programs create certified writers who have a steady income, usually from teaching, and whose writing is judged to be “literature” before it is even published. And some writing – very little, in comparison to the total produced by what the University of the South calls “the writing industry” – creates the kind of writing you will grab and take with you as you flee for your life from the burning building we term, with unconscious sarcasm, Western civilization.

The first pieces of writing that I was paid for were articles for a trade paper that covered the independent grocery business. I wrote a story about Bertolli olive oil, which was just entering the U. S. market at that time, and the Bertolli guy in New York actually sent me a letter of thanks. He did not know that the original ending of my piece about his olive oil had been suppressed. I had concluded on what I thought was an upbeat note by saying something to the effect that Bertolli was going to make olive oil “bigger than Popeye’s girlfriend.”

The owner of the paper thought this might offend the company. The owner of the paper, like the owners of most papers, was a candy-ass and a coward.

I am a coward, too, but I do the scary stuff anyway, because fear is not a valid motive for anything, and also because I’ve learned that if something scares me, it usually will interest the reader, who may or may not be interested in what merely interests me.

I spent a long time – or what seemed like a long time – in what they call “trade press,” writing about things like soft drinks, corporate real estate management and facilities planning, computers and programming, and the airline business. I then wrote my first novel, which effort I supported by writing corporate communications, user manuals, various technical pieces, and by learning data-base programming. No longer a part of the Service in the military sense, I was now in the Service as a writer.

In 1991 I went to work for a publisher of medical newsletters, and I wrote about HIV/AIDS, cancer, and MDR-TB. I also wrote my second novel, Safe Sex, which was published in England in 1997 by Fourth Estate Limited.

Writing explicitly about human beings being sexual is very good for your sex life. It is surprisingly liberating. It really frees you up, as they say. When Safe Sex was published, I discovered that most, if not all, of the sexually liberated (aka mature) reviewers were gay. The straight people uniformly pooh-poohed the book, like sex was something beneath them – no big deal to these experienced and world-weary heteros, see?

Don’t let these critics kid you. Sex is a big deal to every last one of them. That’s why explicit writing about sex baffled them to the degree that they could not see notice the influence of Oedipus Rex in the storyline of Safe Sex.

But nobody reads the classics anymore. That was my mistake.

Everybody did notice the word cunt, which I used in that novel because it is the actual English word for the female sexual organ. This upset some bourgeois Southern liberals.

Liberals don’t have cunts. They have “pussies” and other similarly childish code words for cunt. The childishness of such verbiage is precisely why I used the word cunt in Safe Sex. Kung Fu-tzu called this practice “the rectification of names” and called it, as well, the first step in the saving of society. That is, saying what you really mean is the beginning of sanity, salvation, and, yes, good government. What I really meant was – cunt. I did not mean “pussy,” or any other baby-talk. I meant cunt. (I still do. If you’re interested, check out The Analects or read Eros Denied: Sex in Western Society by Wayland Young, which may be purchased used here and here

My thinking is simple: if you can’t say it, you don’t really get to do it, and if you can’t call it by its real name, you haven’t really got one. Not really.

Safe Sex was what an agent in Atlanta termed “a hard sell to a small audience.” This, I think, is because “Americans” – defined as North American white people, with tacit honorary membership extended to a few European whites – don’t really like reading about sex because they (still) think it’s dirty and all that stuff, that is, unspeakable. And they think only kids – specifically, adolescent boys – would even care to read about sex. Mature people don’t read such stuff, mature being defined as having and keeping a job, owning and paying off a car, raising well-behaved children, voting, supporting the United Way, having a checking account and a portfolio, owning a home, paying the bills, taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn, washing the car, doing the laundry, etc. This defines the maturity of a people who believe Ronald Reagan was a “great” president – they know this must be true, because they saw it on television.

These people are rationalizing their fear of their own genitals, which is terrifyingly real to them. When they fuck, they are liable to turn off the lights. One of these bourgeois liberal women said to me: “Women don’t masturbate.” This particular lady probably doesn’t have a cunt, either.

If you think cunt is dirty, look it up in the dictionary. Check out that old etymology. Read Chaucer, who uses the Middle-English form of the word in The Canterbury Tales. Cunt wasn’t dirty in English until that band, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans, took over England. They declared it a dirty word, because they thought it was a dirty thing.

What’s your opinion?

The publication of Safe Sex was followed by a long period of writing feverishly that took real years to result in anything. When it finally resulted in something, a novel about biological warfare in the Second World War called The Wonders of the Invisible World, it couldn’t be published in the United States either. Wonders is a fairly realistic historical novel about the Pacific War and its aftermath – i.e., the early days of the Cold War – and that kind of narrative can’t be published for North American white people, with tacit honorary membership extended to a few Europeans.

Or maybe it could be published, but no one could figure out how to market it, which is what the publishing industry is really about. You can’t say, for instance, that it’s a book about World War II that fans of warfare like Tom Brokaw will rush out to buy. The U. S. publishing industry, like every other industry, is soulless. Clever, but soulless.

(That paragraph is an example of the rectification of names. Compare the etymologies of industry and profession, and see if it isn’t.)

What can be marketed about war and warfare in the United States is Saving Private Ryan, which is a twenty-minute extravaganza of special effects “realism,” followed by two hours of what Edmund Wilson termed patriotic gore – two hours of war movie that was, in its heart of hearts, no different in spirit from the Hollywood propaganda movies of the period, just more “graphic.” At the end of Saving, though, we’re treated to a full-screen shot of the U. S. flag, aka “Old Glory,” flying high with the sun shining through it – the U. S. as light-bringer, so to speak.

(But remember, the original light-bringer wound up chained to a rock having his liver eaten out of his body by an eagle every day, over and over, forever. That should have given Robert Rodat pause, but he probably didn’t read the classics either.)

To be fair, there is one scene in Saving that gets at the real effect of violence. That occurs at the Ryan home, in what looks like Kansas or Indiana or some other image that brings to mind, in the movies, “the heartland.” The sequence shows Mother Ryan at the kitchen sink, looking out the window and seeing a big black car pull up out front. She goes to the door and, by the time she gets it open, she sees two men in uniform emerging from the vehicle. Knowing what this visit means, she cannot remain standing and collapses in the doorway.

If you want to reveal the horror of violence, this is the kind of thing that can do it, because it shows that violence is pointless and meaningless human suffering. Human suffering happens to your mother. Everybody else as well, but having it happen to Mother will sell the concept of nonviolence a lot better than any other scenario. Killing, as George Orwell once observed, is screaming children and hysterical women and weeping men. Let’s show that to our adolescent boys and girls.

So, as I said at the beginning, I grew up in the U. S. Army, the Service, which is why I don’t romanticize war or take Tom Brokaw seriously. I’m a big fan of Graham Greene, though, who wrote the following passage in The Ministry of Fear:

Rowe thought, as he often did, that you couldn’t take such an odd world seriously, and yet all the time, in fact, he took it with a mortal seriousness. The grand names stood permanently like statues in his mind: names like Justice and Retribution, though what they both boiled down to was simply Mr Rennit, hundreds and hundreds of Mr Rennits. But of course if you believed in God – and the Devil – the thing wasn’t quite so comic. Because the Devil – and God too – had always used comic people, futile people, little suburban natures and the maimed and warped to serve his purposes. When God used them you talked emptily of Nobility and when the devil used them of Wickedness, but the material was only dull shabby human mediocrity in either case.

Let’s repeat that phrase: “dull shabby human mediocrity.” When it’s all said and done and they lower us into the ground, that’s me and you and, I’ll bet, Steven Spielberg too. And owning up to it is both the meaning of humility and the beginning of being able to laugh at yourself. No one who can laugh at himself (or herself) ever starts a war. No, wars, the most gloriously useless and wasteful of all human endeavors, are always started by serious people, adult people, people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a sexually explicit book or watching raw news footage of actual combat, people who don’t know there is a difference between graphic realism and truth, between truth and propaganda, and who find the propaganda a whole lot easier to do – and, especially, to sell. Growing up, I got to see what all the greatest killing actually did to the men who were present and on the scene at the time of the carnage, before it became a movie, and I concluded early on that it wasn’t worth it.

I was right. I still am.

I have concluded that we, Americans, are as phony about war as we are about sex. And it’s not just us. If you read the letters and diaries written by the troops who fought the battle of Stalingrad, you find, again and again, soldiers on all sides claiming to be “fighting for freedom.”

Dig it: the Nazis and the Communists fought for freedom – according to themselves. Actually, the Nazis and the Communists fought for real estate and money, which is what we fought for too, because those are always the goals and the purpose and the cause of war. The army of Spartacus actually did fight for its freedom, but it lost to an army that fought for its property. This, and this alone, is what nations kill for.

I’ve written an awful lot for property, and the idea behind websites like this one is mainly about property as well: selling books is a part of property. But I don’t believe I can really sell you on my books, my writing, by “creating content” or expertly applying search-engine optimization techniques or any means other than by being the same guy here that I am when I write the books. That’s a guy who is writing because he has to if he is ever going to be free.

Right now I’m working on a crime story – what the college professors call noir – and next year I will be writing another war novel, one about the Great War, aka “World War I.” I have hopes for the commercial potential of the crime story, tentatively entitled Blackout, and, who knows about the Great War? Next August marks the centennial of its beginning, and I assume, along with all the other industrial-strength writers, that it will be and will remain “commercially viable” for the duration of the festivities, that is, till 11 November 2018 – the History-As-Spectacle Book Sale to end all History-As-Spectacle Book Sales, or: Back to the Future with the First Greatest Generation.

But that is only what I hope for, and Emily Dickinson called hope “the thing with feathers.” That’s me. Dull, shabby, human, mediocre, with feathers. And that’s what I write about (also me). I drink (soda water) to the dull, the shabby, the mediocre, and, above all, to a thing with feathers.

Writing about so-called “limited nuclear war” in The Challenge of Peace in 1983, the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said this about hope:

Hope sustains one’s capacity to live with danger without being overwhelmed by it; hope is the will to struggle against obstacles even when they appear insuperable. Ultimately our hope rests in the God who gave us life, sustains the world by his power, and has called us to revere the lives of every person and all peoples.

Amen, brother. Now, where art thou?

New York Times Still Holds Out Hopes for War!

Love the New York Times. Headline today on the homepage of their website, regarding the breakthrough in our lack of relations with Iran:

Deal With Iran to Halt Nuclear Program

Landmark Pact Sets a Six-Month Freeze, but Enrichment Issues Remain

Catch that but! There’s still a chance for war! Hurrah for Captain Spalding and Benjamin Netanyahu! Hang on to your Halliburton stock!

And beneath this comes, as they say in the Army, the piece of resistance:

 A Step Toward Slowing Iran’s Weapons Capability

Not a step toward peace. Colored people who wear turbans and pray to Allah don’t take steps like that.  We hold the trademark on peace, and have ever since Vietnam.

Hating the South (from My Life in Pink)

Forbes knew he would have to borrow the rest of the money. He still had a few “clients,” and he gave one of them a call.

The client’s name was Willie Jay Lee and he published the Georgia Traveler, a digest-size magazine given away at welcome centers and hotels around Atlanta. Forbes’s job consisted of rewriting press releases from all over the Peach State about the interesting and fun things going on — all over the Peach State. Remember local interest?

His favorite feature was one he had written about horse-drawn carriage rides. These were all urban affairs, and his favorite was Colonel Palm’s Carriage Rides in Macon. Colonel Palm was a real person, not just a trademark — the sort of factoid that Willie Jay Lee liked to call An Historic Figure. He had held the largest cotton auction in the antebellum South and been shot dead in a duel. Grateful slaves had carried him to his resting place, because, the owner told Forbes, “Colonel Palm was a good master.”

Forbes loved that line because he knew that, although it was another instance of the things that make “Southern culture” a contradiction in terms, nobody would get the joke but him. Maybe Benny at the Buckhead Loan was right — Forbes really was a nigger, someone had just turned the white side out.

He had met Willie Jay Lee while drawing unemployment, aka The Un. To prove himself deserving of The Un and in conformance with the Poor Laws, he had to apply for three jobs every week, which he did by mailing out one resumé a day, Tuesday through Thursday, to companies listed in the Atlanta Media Guide, a yearly compilation issued by a local public relations firm. When Forbes reached the G’s, Willie Jay Lee liked what he saw.

Forbes had always suspected something dubious in the characters of men who had two first names — Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, Michael Anthony — and Willie Jay Lee had three of them, like Lee Harvey Oswald.

“Well, sir, how much would you charge for this sort of thing?” Willie Jay said as they sat in his office in the appropriately named MONY Building, overlooking I-85 and the Masonic Temple on what Willie Jay always called Historic Peachtree Street.

Forbes sat across from Willie Jay’s beat-up old wooden desk in his raw-silk-and-linen jacket and said, “My usual rate is forty dollars an hour.”

Willie Jay smiled and smiled and said, “Well, sir, I dont think I can afford that.”

“Then,” Forbes countered, “how about ten dollars a page?”

Big smiles. “Well, sir, that sounds more like it! Yes sir, that certainly does!”

Willie Jay Lee could not imagine that an experienced prostitute like Forbes could turn six pages of this sort of copy in one hour; and so he wound up paying sixty dollars an hour because he could not afford to pay forty.

Willie Jay was seventy-two, and in his younger days had trod the boards of Atlanta Little Theater playing Rhett Butler in local productions of Gone with the Wind. Like most Southern businessmen Forbes had known, Willie Jay was a combination of the Old South and the New, i.e., twisted racism restrained by greed. He had a razor-keen eye for the dollar, sharpened by years of hard-bargain-driving at estate sales and auctions, where he had accumulated a treasure trove of this and that — an original etching signed by Henri Matisse, the cover sheet of Charles Ives’s 1st Symphony autographed by the composer, an artist’s pallet once owned by Norman Rockwell — all of which he kept in a tiny apartment off Peachtree Street on the way to Midtown.

Willie Jay always got a charge out of explaining how the Traveller worked, as though he had invented trade press publishing all by himself. He was mystified when Forbes asked to see his editorial calendar, and, as Forbes tried to explain the concept of a schedule of issues and their themes, coupled with a projection of planned articles, collectively referred to as The Editorial Calendar and used to inform prospective advertisers of the prime times to place their promotional notices, the realization slowly dawned on him that Willie Jay knew next to nothing about actually-existing magazine publishing. He had figured out the whole chore on his own, from scratch, and what he had not personally invented did not exist.

Willie Jay had an assistant named Pam Bamfurd, an obese Republican hysteric who believed that The Real Uhmerica had lost the Civil War and called Halloween “a Satanic rite.” Pam believed that she alone kept the Traveller on course, when it actually seemed to Forbes to get along, like drunks and the United States, by God’s grace, aka luck. Every time Forbes talked to her, she would say, “Mister Connolly, I am having the worst day of my life!” and he gradually came to understand that Pam truly did comprehend her existence as a procession of steadily worsening days, a trip in babysteps to the eighth circle of Hell, a voyage to the bottom of a bottomless pit. When he tried to explain the editorial calendar to her, she said: “How’s Willie Jay supposed to know what we’re gonna publish six months from now?”

Along with all her Southerner’s ignorance, fear, and superstition, Pam also displayed the same linguistic quirk Forbes had found among so many magazine professionals — she spoke of what we published in our magazine.

Forbes felt he could not afford to think about us.

Willie Jay’s target audience was people who come to Georgia for fun, a trip Forbes never could quite fathom once he had stopped drinking. He himself never went beyond the city’s perimeter highway — that is Erskine Caldwell country out there, Jacques, Hazel Motes territory, Bubba fucking his cousin in Smyrna and dark deeds with chickens in the outhouse, Percy Grimm throwing Joe Christmas’s testicles over his shoulder, teasing nihilistic Southern blondes, Cobb County Republicans feeding on their young, and, presiding over it all, Christ of the Appalachians, a monumental poured-concrete statue of the Son of God near the southern end of the Trail, so tall the FAA required that a flashing red warning light be mounted on His head. “Best seen from the air,” n’est-ce pas?

The Traveller was what Southerners call meaningful work. It meant that all the wars fought by Southerners were, tragically, absolutely necessary. For Forbes, it also had a more personal meaning: as a writer, you are a failure.

And, sitting at his desk staring at the telephone and calculating how much of an advance he might ask of Willie Jay, Forbes acknowledged again that he was indeed a failure. There followed a searing, reassuring flood of self-pity, and he knew, again, that he had not yet gotten past his failure. For, since he had not died from the failure, it had to be a bridge leading on to something else, and he longed to be truly Elsewhere, and he also knew that his self-pity was at least part of the fee to get there. The feeling was “the price to pay,” as Chick of the Many Years would have said, ever ready with a commercial metaphor for Life Itself. But Forbes preferred to think of his self-pity as the defective reaction to the real, the obvious, the true, a feeling he would have to finally transcend in order to experience some more appropriate response — response as in responsible, he thought, as in able to respond.

What form this response might take he did not know yet. (Yet was an important word with Forbes. He always remembered the night, years before, after a meeting at the DADA Club that Chick had asked him, “Do you believe in God?” and he had said, “Not yet, but I’m going to.”) So he knew that, barring death, he would cross his bridge, travel his personal trail of self-pitying tears to an end that was in fact another beginning, because there was always a beginning again, whether he wanted one or not.

He had not wanted to begin again at the beginning, nineteen years before. He had not wanted to stop drinking. Rather, he had wanted the drinking to work: he had wanted to drink and stay sober. But he knew, as all drunks eventually know, that this goal was, in two words, Im Possible, and thus he found himself rolling around on the dirty carpet of Mickie Huston’s living room at three in the morning on a Saturday, crying because he could not drink.

Could not drink”?

Where had that come from?

Years later, the uniqueness of that situation came to him, that he had been in pain to the point of tears without reaching the point of drink. A first in his little life. Aka: sobriety. He had not, while rolling around hysterically on the carpet, noticed. Nor had he wanted such a beginning, a mindless yawp, out of control. Who would?

And now, here, he had failed all over again. He sighed, sitting at his desk, looking at the phone, recalling all the times that he had had to borrow money when he drank. No wonder he was a failure.

But at least he had failed after Herculean effort, in a failure it had taken generations to produce, the distillation of the denial of two Confederate bloodlines, refusing in their hearts of hearts ever to surrender, though beaten objectively, ever to cry mea culpa, though proven full of will and sin, the kind of convoluted reasoning that takes brain cells and twists them in upon themselves, calling forth from areas of ethanol-induced brain damage a phantastic delirium of troublemaking boogie men, night riders and other spooks haunting the Gothic imagination of The South: outside agitators, spy rings, enemy agents, Nigger Jew Communists, unUhmerican activists, Islamofascists, and all other foreigners, all opposed to our heroic death squads, our valiant wet boys, human degenerates subverting law and odor, defying our Confederacy’s voluminous body of little nujolneeding-there’s-a-reason rules, devised with ouija and proven by algebra, cunningly framed to ratiocinate away the vote, the choice, the unpleasant real, the unwanted true, the painful, obvious guilt.

All of which, Forbes thought, was what sent young Quentin Compson screaming from his Harvard dormitory into the iron cold New England dark crying I dont hate the South! I dont! I dont hate it!

But that’s only because he has not seen it lately:

The Sunbelt!
a vast, chillingly airconditioned greengrass mall of well-intentioned atrocity spread across a landful of mutual strangers sent south by The Company to live in happy anxiety in Capitalism’s promised land of Equal Opportunity Free Nigger-Of-All-Races Labor and Ethnicities Productivity, with the right to work and the right to sleep at Mount Vernon, Williamsburg, Jamestown, and endless other moderan “developments” and “complexes” named for the original cradles of the revolution to end all revolution, to replace the stillborn, thundering No! with Mexican-built McHousing on, yes, Bill, postage stamps of soil, with five squillion channels and numenous webinars via fiber optic cable.

But, Forbes reflected as he reached for his phone, we’ve got trouble here in the City of Jefferson, Luster has taken another wrong turn again and thus is our sleep troubled by adolescents in oversexed cars nightly roaming the pill villages to scary African beats, smoking cigarettes, chasing shots of NyQuil with Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, pushing over mailboxes en route to a pool party where they tear to pieces young Robbie Calliope, aka The Kid From The Other Side, first knocking him unconscious and then passing the evening, in the words of our family newspaper, “urinating” on the body. Leave it to Beaver. Robbie had a choice, you know. He could have been murdered at home. Personal responsibility, see?

What? What’s that you say? Can you speak a little louder?