American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Lightby Iain Sinclair
The visionary writer Iain Sinclair turns his sights to the Beat generation in America in his most epic journey yet
"How best to describe Iain Sinclair?" asks Robert Macfarlane in The Guardian. "A literary mud-larker and tip-picker? A Travelodge tramp (his phrase)? A middle-class dropout with a gift for bullshit (also his phrase)? A/i>/b>/b>
The visionary writer Iain Sinclair turns his sights to the Beat generation in America in his most epic journey yet
"How best to describe Iain Sinclair?" asks Robert Macfarlane in The Guardian. "A literary mud-larker and tip-picker? A Travelodge tramp (his phrase)? A middle-class dropout with a gift for bullshit (also his phrase)? A toxicologist of the twenty-first-century landscape? A historian of countercultures and occulted pasts? An intemperate WALL-E, compulsively collecting and compacting the city's textual waste? A psycho-geographer (from which term Sinclair has been rowing away ever since he helped launch it into the mainstream)? He's all of these, and more."
Now, for the first time, the enigma that is Iain Sinclair lands on American shores for his long-awaited engagement with the memory-filled landscapes of the American Beats and their fellow travelers.
A book filled with bad journeys and fated decisions, American Smoke is an epic walk in the footsteps of Malcolm Lowry, Charles Olson, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Gary Snyder, and others, heated by obsession (the Old West, volcanoes, Mexico) and enlivened by false memories, broken reports, and strange adventures.
With American Smoke, Sinclair confirms his place as the most innovative of our chroniclers of the contemporary.
This rewarding literary travelogue through the turf of Beat poets and novelists is a layered, shape-shifting homage to their edgy rhythms. English poet, novelist, and actor Sinclair (Downriver) combines history, memory, and travel in a dizzying mix that will leave the novice reader pawing through primary sources in order to sort out the map of their influence, culturally and geographically. Readers steeped in the works of Charles Olson, Jack Kerouac, Malcolm Lowry, Gregory Corso, and Gary Snyder (among the many writers referenced in his kaleidoscopic recollections) will enjoy the jam-packed depictions of these “psychogeographic energy lines,” as Sinclair (b. 1943) leaps from Black Mountain College to Lowry’s damp beach shack in Vancouver to Ed Dorn’s L.A. living room where he rhapsodizes about the prowess of the soccer star Wayne Rooney on television. Unbound by narrative constraint, stuffed with personal recollections of interactions with his heroes, shifting between time frames without warning or clear intent, the book’s main flaw might be its overabundance of material. But there’s plenty of humor and a respect for his idols; his account of his second pilgrimage to William Burroughs’s home is particularly good. Of his quest, Sinclair concedes: “I’m not sure what I was searching for, but I think I may have found it.” Any reader with a fraction of Sinclair’s robust, relentless knowledge and enthusiasm will feel the same. Agent: John Berlyne, Zeno Agency. (Apr.)
An intrepid British writer takes to the road in search of the Beats. Poet, essayist, documentarian, filmmaker, editor and novelist Sinclair (Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics, 2012, etc.) first read the Beats in the 1960s, when he was a teenager in Dublin. Later, he discovered "how tribal and interconnected the American countercultural scene actually was: everybody met everybody….They feuded, fought, formed intense friendships, sulked for generations." To understand the texture and force of the Beats' community, Sinclair embarked on a journey, following in the peripatetic and woozy footsteps of Malcolm Lowry, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and assorted other writers and their friends, lovers, publishers and acolytes. With an eye for the telling vignette and a deft talent for the "rapid-sketched" portrait, Sinclair counters what he calls "Beat Generation revivalism [that] threatens to turn the whole circus into another Bloomsbury Group." In the seaside city of Gloucester, Mass., he picked up the trail of poet Charles Olson, a large man with an overpowering presence and "a rumbling voice thick with smoke, sweat dripping, black eyebrows emphatic." Ginsberg emerges as a kind of Ancient Mariner, "with his glittering eye, his gleaming cranium and shamanic red silk shirt," responding to questions with well-rehearsed anecdotes involving Olson, Burroughs, and even Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, "in broad-brim jungle hat, is an audition for the granddad of Indiana Jones." Although drugs, alcohol and sex were the vices of choice for all the Beats, Sinclair notes a difference between those in New York ("peppery, competitive") and the "cooler cats" in California, who were drawn to Buddhism. "What mattered most to the Beats," Sinclair writes, "was the intensity of visionary experience." Melding reportage and memoir, this gossipy, idiosyncratic cultural history offers a fresh, unvarnished look at an eccentric, brash and dynamic cast of literary rebels.
“When I opened Iain Sinclair's American Smoke I felt something very different. Here is a style both measured and sumptuously wild--a beautiful, obsessive and individual style--and it's the right weapon for attacking a monumental task: visiting American towns and landscapes associated with the Beats and the writers and poets in their orbit.” Lawrence Osborne, The New York Times Book Review
“If you ever feel that plain E.B. White/George Orwell transparent style is--whisper it softly--really kind of flat and boring, try Sinclair. If you are drawn to English that doesn't just sing, but sings the blues and scats and rocks the joint, try Sinclair. His sentences deliver a rush like no one else's. American Smoke . . . is certainly a head trip worth taking.” Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
“One of Sinclair's greatest skills has always been his ability to take diverse if not chaotic source material and refashion it in a way that sometimes seems downright alchemical. Once Sinclair starts making connections he finds them everywhere . . . But what ultimately makes the book come together is Sinclair's tough but malleable sensibility, expressed through a prose style that's hard-edged, inventive, often wildly extravagant.” Geoff Nicholson, The Los Angeles Times
“[American Smoke] is beguiling, full of sparkling prose and odd, unexpected detours.” The New Yorker
“Sinclair's is a prolix poetics, an amassing of noun-hives whose compacted wit would make the most lexically dexterous rapper envious . . . his writing can be an imagistic seance-stream full of startling riffs, memory sifts, domino-effect associationism.” Sukhdev Sandhu, The Observer
“Sinclair's bad journeys and higher gossip and spiritual puns bring us not only to the end of the light but to the wild edges of beauty.” Baynard Woods, Baltimore City Paper
“Sinclair fans will love American Smoke's rich mix, the blurred lines and outfield references.” Anthony Sattin, The Spectator
“What Sinclair delivers is not just a stunning evocation of the landscapes of America . . . but a precise aetiology of what made him the writer he is. I would recommend this book to every creative writing student in the country.” Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman
“Taut, endlessly fertile prose . . . In American Smoke [Sinclair's] voice is still urgent; it still has things to tell us. Of we know what's good for us, we'll listen.” Jon Day, Financial Times
“Inventive, dazzling, arresting. A superb chronicle of an impossible dream that has descended to a nightmare.” New Statesman on Ghost Milk
“Brilliant, superb. Sinclair has gone from cult author to national treasure.” Robert Macfarlane, The Guardian on Ghost Milk
An avant-garde filmmaker and writer, Sinclair (winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and Encore Award for Downriver) is better known in the British Isles than the United States. A mix of memoir, travelog, and literary criticism, his latest work chronicles a pilgrimage to places made sacred by his literary heroes: Charles Olson's Gloucester; Jack Kerouac's Lowell, MA; Gregory Corso's New York; William Burroughs's Kansas; and Gary Snyder's Pacific Northwest, among others. Chapters are organized into five sections: Ocean, Fire, Smoke, Mountain, and Ash, reflecting an interest in alchemy as well as ecology. Sinclair ruminates on the writers and their works, their relationships and mutual influences, and their debts to earlier writers such as Herman Melville and Celine. While the book celebrates these literary figures, it has a greater purpose—to provide Sinclair with a springboard for self-exploration. As such, it reflects a wide range of his thoughts on literary politics, the rare book trade, filmmaking, magic, Malcolm Lowry, Roberto Bolaño, and, somewhat incongruously, Nazi war criminal Albert Speer. VERDICT Full of digressions and less than oblivious allusions, Sinclair's style will limit his audience. However, readers who share his artistic and cultural contexts will find the book both engaging and enjoyable.—William Gargan, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., CUNY
- Faber and Faber
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.30(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)
Read an Excerpt
Journeys to the End of the Light
By Iain Sinclair
Faber and Faber, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Iain Sinclair
All rights reserved.
Two Men Smoking
and sees all things and to him are presented at night the whispers of the most flung shores from Gloucester out
– Ed Dorn
It was the season of autumn ghosts, a dampness in the soul. 2011 and London had lost its savour. A good step beyond midway through my dark wood of the world, I came to America, hoping to reconnect with the heroes of my youth. The largest, the most light-occulting of all the giants, that earlier race, was Charles Olson: poet, scholar and last rector of Black Mountain College. This establishment, a scatter of buildings beside a lake in North Carolina, now imploded, bankrupt, seemed to us a Valhalla of all the talents: Josef Albers, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn. Pick up the traces anywhere you choose, through fugitive magazines or literary gossip, and they lead back to one man. Olson knew, better than most, that his chosen territory, the Eastern Seaboard, the whaling ports, was once connected to Scotland. And long before Prince Henry Sinclair, the Earl of Orkney, crossed the Atlantic, island-hopping in 1398, to bring back stories of infinite forests and their natives, and to leave his mark stamped on a rock. The native Micmac Indians, according to some authorities, recognized the tall voyager as their man-god, Glooscap. 'Kulóskap was the first, first and greatest, to come into our land,' sang the tribal poet. He was 'sober, grave, and good'. The big man walked on the backs of whales. One of Olson's youthful disciples, Peter Anastas, carried out proper research into Glooscap; his heritage, the archaeological scratchings, the subsistence life in shack and trailer park endured by the last of the first people in this unyielding place.
Glooscap the man becomes Gloucester the town. By sound, by sonar echo, by necessity. Olson, writing about his childhood and his father, the Worcester mailman, calls the story 'Stocking Cap'. With some hope of payment, he sent it to The New Yorker in February 1948. It was rejected. Glooscap, Stocking Cap. A nod to elective Swedish ancestors, to Vikings. Cutting holes in the ice, winter fishing: father and son. I loved the old photograph used on the cover of Olson's memoir, The Post Office: that stern, bulb-headed baby emerging from a sack of letters, hard against his father's pounding heart. Two figures from a race of huge, raw-boned immigrants, studio-captured against a painted pond, a forest clearing. I wanted it to be so. I needed a new mythology to shield against the sense of loss and hanging dread inherent in the invasion and dissolution of my familiar London ground; forty years learning where to walk and a few months to lose it all. Go back then into uncertainty, ocean-venturing exchanges. Ed Dorn, one of the sharpest and most independent of Olson's Black Mountain students, and just about the only one who bothered to graduate, characterized Gloucester as somewhere settled by people from remote islands who knew how to build fences and stone walls. 'That's one reason why New England is really there,' he said.
'It's a tough one,' Olson replied, laying out the American West as Dorn's field of study. 'One thing's sure: economics as politics as money is a gone bird.'
All poetry, a now-obsolete (and stronger for that) form, Dorn suggested, derived from The Iliad or The Odyssey. Either we stay put, dig in, battle with our gods, or we move, drift, detour: move for the sake of moving. Jack Kerouac's On the Road is precisely what it says: it goes on as long as the roll of paper lasts. Olson was formidable in combining the two archetypal sources: he excavated the particulars of his adopted town and he contemplated the restless sea. Without leaving his high window, he would drive off spleen by charting the madness of those who ventured on the watery part of the world. He began with Herman Melville. Curse me with truth. Call me Ishmael.
* * *
Today, quite suddenly, the sun breaks through; I follow Olson's obliterated footprints. There is the long shadow of a drowned man on the beach. And he is walking, rolling heavy shoulders. You have to be dead yourself, more than a little, to register him. The Atlantic, on this precious morning, is blameless; every pebble visible, an invitation to stripping off and striking out. But it won't happen, not now. Not ever.
I come along the curve of the esplanade they call 'boulevard', from Fort Point, tramping in suspended excitement, with watering eyes, above a beach I know so well; this place I have never been, even in sleep: Gloucester, Massachusetts. Late October, season of perfect storms. Even the houses of the wealthy, set back from the shore, are not immune. Buffalo waves break free of the jet stream; steepling rollers, in a shatter of wet glass, spout and smash, upturning cars, rearing over breakfast bars, their panoramic windows crusted with salt, rattled by scouring grains of sand. You are embedded here, at a small table, with your squirting egg and crisped bacon, your coffee refill. A few, mid-morning, comfortably fleshed, warm-shirted citizens stare out on the rain, the road, the shore, making desultory conversation. Some do not turn their heads. More politics, another dying year. The decline of the fishing fleet. Boarded-up computer-repair shops. Banks like temples from an earlier granite era. Barriers erected around City Hall, the civic centre. Tactful marine presentations in Cape Ann Museum. Safe rocks and secure objects: rescued boats, fading portraits. The original statue of Our Lady of Good Voyage, that draped and crowned votive figure brought in from the church roof, now shockingly out of scale in a dim chamber. Huge hands, this woman of wood: a fish-gutter supporting a model twin-masted vessel.
* * *
Olson's car didn't do reverse. When a friend, sent out from the upstairs apartment with the great view, on the point, right over the Inner Harbor, to fetch cigarettes and whisky for another all-night session, sandwiches even, asked, with some trepidation, how Charles managed this thing, navigating the icy streets in a defective motor, the poet said: 'Never go backwards.' Arm raised – so! – gloved fist clamped to fence, Russian cap and trailing coat. 'That way. Always that way now.' Inland, brother. At the end of the poem, of the long emphysemic drag of breath and tumult, the headaches, bunker fevers, heartsick losses, he turned away from the sea. Found a nest in which to die. They carried him, complaining, head first, to the ambulance; crabbed, harpooned. Strike out, stride forward. Then, over Brooklyn Bridge, quoting Lear until the hurt was too much and he gripped his companion's arm, white, asking for painkillers, and they gave him water. The words on the wall of the hut, the Gloucester Writers Center, where I was now lodged: my wife my car my colour my self. Precisely scored gaps for taking breath.
* * *
In the town museum I discovered a painting, studio-posed, reconfiguring some forgotten classical tableau. Rocks. The virgin New England shore of green scrub, grey clouds. Three people: two women and a man. I don't want to know who painted it. A clothed girl, dark hair depending from a summer hat, props herself on her left arm; she sprawls, shoes off, confronting the bathing-suited figure of a conspicuously fit young man with rather effeminate tresses and supplicant lips. At the edge of the composition, clutching a thick black branch, is another woman, a little older perhaps, more obviously mythological; smooth, bare leg emerging from a long white wrap. Sexual tension, subdued but palpable, plays across the interval between the solitary standing figure and the transfixed couple. The gash dividing the spread of rocks is matted with pubic moss. The couple facing us, recovered from their swim, near-naked but bone dry, make-up intact, confront the clothed girl, whose elbow is scabbed and raw: an orgy postponed. And hung in a corner of a museum nobody visits. As competent and pointless as Augustus John.
* * *
Olson's wife, Betty, found the apartment. And fell in love, at once, with what she saw, inside and out. Romanticizing inconvenience, cold water, cold season, she wrote to Charles, summoning up, across hard-driven distance, his comforting bulk and warmth. 28 Fort Square. They were set down, mature orphans, among the Sicilian community, the working fishermen. And it did play, this fortunate accident. The opening of the poem, after false starts elsewhere, was brought home, earthed. The thrust of Fort Point, lighthouse blinking in the fog on Ten Pound Island. The Inner Harbor. Longline swordfish boats setting out. Olson had tried it, by way of research: crewing. With his size he was awkward. The sea was not, finally, so he said, his trade. Making a lovely phrase, as poets do, out of getting it all wrong. His trade was the sea. And looking at it. Marine charts curling on a clapboard wall. What that early apprenticeship gave him, way short of the reach of a Melville or Conrad, was archive; photographs of a big man in old light, on deck, beside a gaffed swordfish. He knew it was a lie, he was watching the watching. Learning the simplest things last, the jolt of pain going over the bridge. The thickening silence.
* * *
When we drove into Gloucester at night, in the rain, Henry Ferrini, Vincent's nephew, made a little detour to point out Fort Square. Vincent Ferrini had been Olson's first Gloucester correspondent: the argument, the male rutting in those letters, fired the opening of The Maximus Poems. Buildings torn down. History trashed. 'I liked him right off,' Ferrini said. Vincent was the town character, feisty and fast. The poet in the leather hat. 'Write to me,' Olson ordered, 'and tell me how my streets are.' Already he is laying claim to the territory, the reek of the fish-processing plants.
Damp fog, like a residue of H. P. Lovecraft's Innsmouth, coated everything outside the immediate warmth of the hut and seeped into my skin. I dodged busy traffic – gas tankers, red-and-white Coca-Cola rigs longer than my London street, muddy station wagons – and scuttled down to the harbour. Boat buildings. A chained fleet waiting on the weather. CATERINA GLOU MA. JANAYA JOSEPH GLOU MA. Crosstree masts. Spars. Cables. Fishing lines spooled on giant thimbles at the stern. Impossible, when I try the roadside convenience store, to find fresh fruit or breakfast cereal. Profusion of jumbo crunch, biscuits and pillows of crisps. Racks of root beer. Coke ordnance. Toothpaste-bright sweeties. Local news is the only news. The habit of newsprint dirties the eye.
NAMING OF BULGER TIPSTER WORRIES FBI OBSERVER
A newspaper's revelation that the tipster who led the FBI to notorious gangster James 'Whitey' Bulger is a former Miss Iceland is raising concerns about her safety. Gloucester Times. Thursday, October 13, 2011.
REVISITING OLSON'S LEGACY
The authenticity of this small gritty city and its residents inspired Olson, like an intellectual fountain of youth. Olson left behind his Gloucester epic titled 'The Maximus Poems' as well as tens of thousands of scraps of paper and letters filled with his thoughts.
Today: Cloudy with rain tapering off. Friday: Periods of rain, some heavy.
Melville's Ishmael, contemplating a whaling voyage, and the dark Fates who have him under 'constant surveillance', imagines newspaper headlines much like the ones I inscribe in my new notebook. GRAND CONTESTED ELECTION FOR THE PRESIDENCY OF THE UNITED STATES. BLOODY BATTLE IN AFGHANISTAN. 1851. Nothing changes. Inky-fingered printers' devils hit the same buttons. Metaphysical weather systems punctuate the centuries with indifferent rigour.
I explore the hill, noting the vodka bottles and crumpled beer cans arranged on the steps in the gaps between neat clapboard houses. I witness the only black man in town enter the Crow's Nest, the authentic set for the inauthentic fiction of The Perfect Storm; when George Clooney and the Hollywood caravan rolled into town. Sebastian Junger, who wrote the original story, settled here as a 'high climber' for a tree company. He spent many hours in the fishermen's bar, listening. There was one black sailor on the fated crew. Swordfishing is harsh labour, nobody but the skipper has any relish for the sea. On the morning of their departure, the boys take a pickup truck to one of those big sheds, hypermarkets, out by the highway. They spend $5,000 on steaks, cigarettes, chicken, booze. Anything but fish. Ten thousand Gloucester men, Junger wrote, have been lost to the sea. Names on church wall, year by year. I stop to read the sepulchral memorial on the boulevard, as I pass, following Olson's evening stroll along the shoreline. Comfortable buses decant sober American tourists. A war that will never be won. But witnessed, with bowed heads, and raised cameras.
Mediterranean Catholicism, in this place I had previously imagined as puritanical and dark, is a rush of colour. Our Lady of Good Voyage, the replica now, is perched on her pedestal, by the blue onion dome, behind a complexity of telegraph wires. Upraised arm, open hand. Halo welded to her shrouded head like a steering wheel. Blood-red candles glow beside the small shrine like Thermos flasks. Or stacked shells in a trench. Blue and gold: the dome, the cross.
Olson, like his fellow Massachusetts author Jack Kerouac, was a Catholic from a working family. His father a delivery man for the mail service in Worcester. Kerouac's father, in Lowell, ran a print shop. When I walked the beach in Sandymount, Dublin, as a twenty-year-old student, Kerouac was my main man: those bad journeys, the questing, the tedium, and the mortal tremor beneath the surface, which I had not then identified. My companion, Christopher Bamford, who would, after Ireland, take the boat to Boston, and not come back, was peddling Beckett and Genet, all those lettuce-green Olympia Press paperbacks. Footmarks tramped a noose in the grey sand, a prison circuit, as we conjured plays written in a single night and floated magazines that never got beyond the proof stage, the abandoned dummy. As we received our airmail correspondence from William Burroughs in Tangier.
By some weird serendipity, we both returned, the same afternoon, with a slim blue-green Grove Press publication, acquired from a department store on O'Connell Street. The Distances: Poems by Charles Olson. By that evening this poet, new and difficult, was an obsession. 'What does not change/is the will to change.' The markers and references and processed autobiographical fragments floated over us, attractive in their obscurity. The man as we learnt a little of him from magazines and visiting American professors became a mythological presence. 'Ego like a lantern,' said a pompous fellow, a Restoration drama specialist on tweedy sabbatical, when questioned about why he'd left Olson out of his summary of the landscape of contemporary US poetics. And that seemed to me just what we were looking for: a dark lantern against prejudice and lazy conformity.
Hearing Olson talk, years later, in archive film sampled by Henry Ferrini for his portrait Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place, you got the excitement of the expanding moment; a rumbling voice thick with smoke, sweat dripping, black eyebrows emphatic as that other alpha male Robert Maxwell (press baron, litigant, whale-corpse found floating). The suffering blackboard, a negative window, slashed by chalk prompts, a blizzard of names and dates. Wild, punching semaphore. And the gleaming melon dome of that glistening skull. To surf all those lines of energy and catch it up, almost, in feverish talk, struggling for breath, dark patches on white shirt. A fresh cigarette, a Camel, fired from the stub of the last. 'I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom Cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.'
* * *
The Sicilian quarter, the tight community on Fort Square, where Charles Olson found a safe branch on which to perch, with Betty, in August 1957, was still very much present when I walked there from my roadside hut in October 2011. First floor, balcony on the side, new names on mailboxes: Frontiero, Sova, Borichevsky. And a harbour view that hits home, both directions in time and space: the workaday shacks, rust running from metal fence into stone wall, fishing boats putting out, seasonal pleasure boats at anchor. In the last years, when the task went sour on him, and Olson was alone, it was an exile interrupted by visitors, New York poets or Warhol's acolyte Gerard Malanga with a thirsty camera.
Olson's son, another Charles, a Gloucester carpenter who shunned literary events and tributes, was proud to put his hand to the simple memorial plaque, pressing it into wet cement: CHARLES OLSON POET 1910–1970. He said a few words to the gathering of enthusiasts.
Excerpted from American Smoke by Iain Sinclair. Copyright © 2013 Iain Sinclair. Excerpted by permission of Faber and Faber, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Iain Sinclair is the author of Downriver (winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Encore Award); Landor's Tower; White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings; Lights Out for the Territory; Lud Heat; Rodinsky's Room (with Rachel Lichtenstein); Radon Daughters; London Orbital; Dining on Stones; Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire; and Ghost Milk. He is also the editor of London: City of Disappearances.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >