These Are Your Heroes On Drugs, And They Kind of Suck
The path to excess leads to the path to wisdom.
Bull fucking shit it does
-Me, at age 38 upon reading William Blake's famous quote
So who wants to commit some literary blasphemy with me?
Well of course you do!
You guys all know who William S. Burroughs is, right? Yeah, he wrote Junky, Queer, and some rambling, delusionary “novel” called Naked Lunch. Yeah, Naked Lunch and everything else Burroughs wrote after Junky, it sucked. Absolutely unreadable. In fact, Burroughs’ novels are so obscenely unreadable that I’ve thought about initiating a nationwide campaign to have the books banned (By the way, I'm joking, so don’t get your panties in a bunch.) because of their overall crappiness.
So how’s about Charles Bukowski, anybody heard of that guy? Unrepentant drunk, used to work at the post office, wrote a shit ton of poetry.
Yeah, Bukowski, that guy sucks, too.
How about Hunter S. Thompson?
F. Scott Fitzgerald?
Raymond Carver? (God, that one hurts to admit.)
Jack Kerouac? (I can also lump Allen Ginsberg in here, too.)
Edward Bunker? (Listing Mr. Blue among these characters is killing me even more than listing Carver.)
Phillip K. Dick?
All of them, each and every single one, they’re shit.
Now at this point, I imagine I have a lot of people shaking their collective heads, thinking:
“How dare you, you little ashhole. I may not like fill in the blank but fill in the blank is a goddamn national treasure! Fill in the blank is one of the best writers to ever live!”
And to a certain extent, I would have to agree with you. The writers I listed above have written one or two groundbreaking literary treasures. I mean, can you honestly picture a world without The Great Gatsby or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? Without Naked Lunch? Of course not, these works are some of the most important pieces of writing to ever be produced, and without them more then a few writers wouldn’t exist. Without Burroughs, there’s no Thomas Pynchon; without Fitzgerald, there is no JD Salinger. (Or most American novelists for that matter.) Hell, without Thompson and Bukowski, I wouldn’t be writing in this ultra-personal style of nonfiction. But if you read deeper, you'll discover that most of them have rolled one or two of those literary treasures into a career where they've rewritten the same story over and over again, and most readers don't even realize it.
Let me put this thought out there, because it's one that I’ve come to embrace over the last several years:
Most readers don’t LOVE certain authors, they love one or two seminal works from an author, but haven’t read the entire body of their work; they just really, really, really like that one book. So whenever I’m talking authors with other readers and they say: “Oh, I just love Hunter S. Thompson!”
My automatic first thought is:
Oh, you mean you LOVE Fear in Loathing in Las Vegas or Hell’s Angels?
And it’s the same if they list Vonnegut, or Bukowski, or Chabon, or Egan. For most readers, it’s not the body, but a singular work which busted their heads open; it’s that one book that changed their world view or made them want to seek out other authors of similar style. True, they may own the rest of the books of their “favorite author,” but generally speaking, they’ve maybe read one or two other titles and have left those other books sitting on the shelf, collecting dust. But if most readers delved a little deeper, particularly in to the writers I mentioned at the beginning of this column, they'd find an overwhelming amount of repetition
Now this particular rule doesn’t apply to me. As a reader, I’m the obsessive type. When I read a novel and it blows me out of the water, I absolutely have to track down the authors past works and devour them as a quickly as possible. (my latest obsession was Irish novelist Alan Glynn—that guy’s got some serious chops.) Which brings me to the authors I’ve listed above as sucking.
As a younger man, my obsessive nature was a bit of a handicap when it came to the books and authors I was into at the time. When I found an author who flipped a switch for me, all I could do was read that author; I would live and breathe them, talk about them obsessively until I finally came to the end of their oeuvre and I would scramble to find another writer to drool over. In my twenties, there was no lack of new-to-me authors to try on: Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Bukowski, Carver and so on so forth. All of them, in one way or another, took my creative breath away. They were gods, pure and simple.
Fast forward ten years. The 'me' of my 20's is long gone; I’m a suburbanite, married, a father, stable employement, 401k, medical insurance, homeowner, the whole about to enter middleage bit. But I’m happy, particularly since I'm sending out my writing in earnest for the first time and the response is more or less positive. And on top of that, I've discovered a whole slew of new writers to obsess on. But, for one reason or another, I decided that it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to revisit some of the writers who turned me on back in the day; a kind of old home week to compare and contrast the writers of the here and now versus the writers of the past. So I cracked open some Bukowski, and then Carver, and then Burroughs (but barely Burroughs.) and discovered something.
These writers who I so long revered, well, their books and stories really didn’t progress beyond one or two subjects. Bukowski did nothing but write about himself. Carver did nothing but write about love in decline, and booze being the major cause of that decline. Burroughs wrote about whatever it was he was seeing when he was on the nod, and usually what he was seeing/writing about was weird sex with bug like humanoid creatures. And the more I delved into the writers of my past, the more I noticed this, and then I couldn’t help but notice that all of the writers I listed above shared one or two common threads. They were either:
A) Boozehounds, or
B) Junkies, or
C) A combination of the two
For those of you who don’t have much experience with boozing or drugging and pursuing those activities over long periods of time, let me clue you in on a couple of things that liquor and dope do to you. First off, it makes you feel absolutely fucking amazing. I’m telling you, the first time I dropped acid or did a line of whatever drug it was I was snorting up my nose was a come to Jesus moment, and then I spent years trying to replicate that feeling again. The second thing it does is it makes you want to smoke an assload of cigarettes. The third thing is that booze and drugs make you feel like shit after the high is over, so therefore you need to do MORE drugs so you don’t feel like shit. And the last thing it does, is completely fucks up your long and short term memory, particularly if you’re a long time user.
With Bukowski, Burroughs, Fitzgerald, Dick, Carver, Thompson, (With Thompson, the line is a little wobblier because he's a journalist, but thematically, there isn't much difference between one book and the next.) all of them went way too deep with their addictions, and because of it, all of them basically wrote the same book, the same story or poem over and over and over again. Sure, the names changed, maybe the town where the story takes place, but the imagery, the themes, they stayed exactly the same.
And if you think I’m wrong, go to your book shelf and do a blind taste test with the authors I’ve listed above. Go pull Love is a Dog From Hell and War All The Time by Bukowski; go pull Where I’m Calling From by Carver and read a couple of stories from it; go pull Naked Lunch and any of Burroughs I’m fucking or getting roughly fucked by a giant cephalopod books, and you’ll notice that even though some of the writing is out-in-out brilliant, all of it is pretty much one constant loop of mental and physical debauchery.
Once I finished rereading, I went back and reread all of my old writing, and I discovered that I was writing in the same never ending loop.
I can’t exactly say they (or I) wrote this way because of long term memory loss; that they wrote these books and stories because they forgot that they wrote the exact same thing a few months or a few years back. (Even the best novelists do this dead sober. I mean, read the last ten years of Phillip Roth’s output, because he pretty much touched on all the same themes now that he was writing about in his thirties.) But the last thing that drugs/booze do to you is it mentally pigeonholes you. Because when you do drugs long enough, if you drink long enough, all that matters is the substance, and it invades every detail in your life, particularly your chosen art form. And really, do you want to spend an entire career writing the same thing over and over again?
Fuck, I can’t believe how much I sounded like a Dare To Stay Off Drugs commercial from the 80’s (I do coke so I can work more, so I can buy more coke…) but the older I get and the more my tastes as both a writer and reader evolve, I really don’t want to read the same things over and over again. If I want that, I can spend what little free time I have watching The Bachelor, or one of the hundreds of remakes Hollywood makes a year, or read James Patterson and Janet Evanovitch novels. But I don’t want things to be the same; I want to fill my life with originality, with inspiration that goes beyond chemically altering myself.
Now I’m not saying don’t read the authors I’ve listed, because you know what, The Great Gatsby is one of the best novels ever written; Bukowski is funny and sad and wonderful; Edward Bunker’s novels are frightening and spell binding. (Bunker’s Dog Eat Dog is one of my hallmark novels along with Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn and Johnson’s Angels) Even early Burroughs (and I mean early, like Junky and Queer.) is brilliant. I’m not even saying don’t do drugs; smoke a joint if you want, (trust me, I know more then a few people who’d benefit from a bong toke now and again just so they would mellow the fuck out.) have a drink or two, hell get drunk every once in awhile. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to expand the consciousness; it’s just not such a hot idea to expand it so much that you become lost in it, and let's face it, after awhile, reading and writing about drunks and junkies just becomes flat out boring.
Alright gang, thanks for reading my blather, and as further thanks (and because I haven’t done it in awhile) I’m going to give away a copy of And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, and all I want from you is for you to tell me who was one of your favorite authors when you were younger, but you can’t stand now and the reason why?
One commenter will be selected at random, and the contest is restricted to U.S. and Canadian residents only.
To leave a comment