Sunday, February 8, 2009
Midnight and I'm Not Famous Yet
The week before I left for our 25 city book tour, I heard from the chair of the English Department where I teach, and the news was grim: All the visiting professors who taught anything besides composition weren't being invited back next year, and that meant me. There wasn't much time to process this news, although it was certainly grave news. (What will I do for work now? How will I find a new job this late in the game? Will we have to move? Will we have health insurance? Will my children be angry with me for getting them into whatever mess is sure to follow?)
A few days later I boarded the airplane for Los Angeles, and in the five days that have so far followed, the constant geographic dislocation has rendered time fluid, the days and nights expanding and contracting like -- here, of course, I could give you sophisticated and literary-sounding similes drawn from the lexicon of space, where everything seems to expand or contract or both, and everything sounds sexy, like stars, the sun, the orbits of planets, and so on, but the similes more accurate to the state of mind I mean to describe are a fool's game on paper -- Silly Putty, chocolate chip cookie dough, that green gelatin alien you buy for fity cents from a vending machine at Pizza Hut and throw at the ceiling and it sticks.
Seriously: how does one make sense of one's own trouble while traveling through a world that sequentially looks like this:
1. Toledo, Ohio, so early in the morning it looks like night, lifting off above the wasted smokeless abandoned factories and the low dirty Maumee River;
2. "Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. If you look through the cabin windows to your left or to your right, you can see the majesty of the Grand Canyon . . . "
3. The otherwordly quality of light upon landing in Los Angeles, where a theatrical lighting director once pointed Lawrence Weschler to the setting sun and spoke of the Almighty: "Incredible, the effects He gets with just one unit;"
4. The serpentine progress of the city as seen from the Green Line, the Blue Line, the Red Line Metro; the First World skyscrapers rising from behind the iron-barred and pink-painted Third World supermercados and zapeterias; the shock of the kind and friendly black faces of protective strangers welcoming us to South Central, a place one finds on first visit to be nearly the opposite of its television analogue;
5. Hollywood and Vine; the stars on the Walk of Fame; the incomprehensible proverbs adorning the street signs outside the nightclubs and used car lots; the Museum of Death;
6. The glamour of the wooden vaulted ceiling like a church sanctuary at Skylight Books; Joshuah Bearman in his bow-tie; Kerrie Kvashay-Boyle runway-ready; the seats filling with friends and strangers; the news that two of them had risked the freeway from Riverside at ninety miles per hour to hear me read about a chase in a tobacco field in Rowan County, Kentucky, seventy-some years in the past;
7. The unexpected sleepiness of San Francisco, the wet in the air, the cold and the drizzle;
8. The kind face of our host George Awad, and the specialness of his social gift, his special ability to make his guests briefly believe they have it, too; our journey through the world by way of the city's cuisines -- Taiwanese squid, the delicate meat from the muscles of beef cheek and chin at the Mexican dive where the Guatemalan man carried a library copy of Isaac Bashevis Singer en Espanol;
9. The sorrowful beauty of the Mission District, the socioeconomic turnings street by street; the face of my Opera House doppelganger on Valencia;
10. The hands-in-pockets charm of a drunken Peter Orner holding forth with enthusiasm on Hungarian literature; the hands-holding-pages charm of Daniel Handler, reading about bad girls, Alzheimer's patients, pirates; the hands-on-hips charm of the mustached-and-nose-ringed woman who made clear her duty as the substitute bookstore employee to have us all out of the store by nine o'clock;
11. The dark of the after-party bar, and the kick of the liquor, unexpectedly strong despite the taste of pineapple;
12. The Portland sky, grayer and gloomier than the Indiana sky, a grayness and gloominess I could not have imagined possible;
13. The march of the creepy men into the Hawthorne Powells, carrying their cameras and tape recorders, wearing their ponchos and mustaches, spurred by the news in the Portland papers that there would be present a "Live Nude Girl;"
14. The white vastness of the poet's tiny studio apartment ceiling, an unexpected vista discovered while lying flat-backed on a deflating air mattress;
15. The somehow-but-how-can-one-explain-how progressive associations of fitful Portland dreams: the five-hundred-foot-tall koulev, snake, serpent, rising above the soccer field in the Haitian countryside to protect the small children from the big ones; the face of Richard M. Nixon; the body blows rained down upon a tiny woman by a tattooed Danny Bonaduce; the eggshell-thin voice of Joan Didion, circa 1973, on a 45 RPM record player; a pink playhouse in West Palm Beach, Florida, and me, age three, and a little girl asking how we should shelve our fine china;
16. Sea-Tac; the forced false smile of the rental car woman, saying my card was denied, then talking about crackheads renting cars and wrecking them; the sudden, first-time knowledge of the logic of Kurt Cobain's life against the washed-out backdrop of passing faded Washington towns, and the word Aberdeen;
17. Unbidden, among the small and dozen daily panic attacks hidden skillfully from my tour partner, the sound of David Bazan's husky voice on the MP3 player of my dendrites -- "I would never divorce you / Without a good reason / And though I may never have to / It is good to have options / But for now, I need you" -- and the sudden and unarticulated wish that love would never be like this, for anyone, anywhere, and the knowledge that a thousand exigencies littered the hills and valleys to our left and to our right;
18. Again, the daily staring at pictures of my wife and children, and missing them desperately;
19. The trays of Twinkies and tiny hot dogs arranged like a kaleidoscope of candy cancer at the University Bookstore in Seattle;
20. The strange beauty of Jonathan Evison's jaunty hat and rouge;
21. Another shock: the twenty patrons following us from bookstore to bar, and the surprising conversations there: Turgenev, Tillich, Tungsten; the death of God; eggplant, pistachio, and portobello; Microsoft; "Dude, if you move to Washington, you can get $440 bucks a week in unemployment!"
22. Jason Skipper's well-chosen bookshelves, the reassurance of the colors of the spines: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, brown, black, purple;
23. The slanty houses of Bellingham; the white dog who lives his life running circles; the black dog I'm not allowed to touch or love, because she hates men, and because she is known to snap at any moment; the news that nearly every serial killer in the United States has been known to pass through Bellingham; the news that here there are places where the bodies can be buried and the bodies will never be found; the news that here the drug lords own a city block, and a man can be stabbed with a knife in the street without consequence, despite the watching policemen;
24. The warmth of conversation in the Italian restaurant, among new friends, and what day is today, anyway?
25. The train tunnel blackness stretching eastward from the white itinerary pages: Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Boston, Provinceton, Providence, Brooklyn, New York, D.C., Baltimore . . .
26. My Amazon ranking is lower than it was when I left town to tour. Is the book not selling? Is the book not selling? If I sell 1000 more copies, will I earn out my advance? If I sell 2000 more copies, will my publishers be pleased? If I sell 10,000 more copies, will I have royalty earnings enough to last a jobless year? If I sell 100,000 more copies, will I be a famous writer? If I sell 1,000,000 more copies, will it buy me love?