Brother Dumbby Sky Gilbert
?Brother Dumb is the memoir of a reclusive American literary icon. Brother Dumb is a how-to manual for meaningful critical engagement with the real world. Brother Dumb is a celebration of innocence, youth, and altruism. Brother Dumb is a true story of self-imposed exile. . . . Brother Dumb is also a work of fiction. Brother Dumb begins in the mid-40s, but spans… See more details below
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?Brother Dumb is the memoir of a reclusive American literary icon. Brother Dumb is a how-to manual for meaningful critical engagement with the real world. Brother Dumb is a celebration of innocence, youth, and altruism. Brother Dumb is a true story of self-imposed exile. . . . Brother Dumb is also a work of fiction. Brother Dumb begins in the mid-40s, but spans decades, delving deep into the five tortured relationships that have shaped one writer’s psycho-sexual history but it also details his bitter literary decline and withdrawal from public life. Brother Dumb is a misanthrope. His withdrawal from the world is as famous, or infamous, as his writing something that he takes great pains to explain is not a desperate cry for attention. Attention is the last thing Brother Dumb wants. So why publish this memoir? Why expose himself to a world of stupid, lecherous, greedy, evil, and calculating people? Because he can’t not write. And because, somewhere out there, a kindred soul might actually be reading. . . .
"Guilty is pleasure . . . fabulous." The Village Voice
"Gilbert is a world class rambler . . . nothing but entertaining." The Toronto Star
"A fictional 'memoir of a reclusive American literary icon' in the voice of 'cranky old' J.D. Salinger . . . Gibert's prose (which has always been Salingeresque) skips along as smartly and readably as ever." The Globe and Mail
"A well-paced and provocative book that sets itself an enormous creative challenge." Quill & Quire
"Brother Dumb is especially fascinating when he talks about art and culture, the publishing industry, what makes a work of art successful and the perils of fame." Now Magazine
"Gilbert's story of art and refusal is rich with reminders of the existential vicissitudes of corporeal existence, and of how pain shuns the spotlight of language." Canadian Literature
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Read an Excerpt
By Sky Gilbert, Michael Holmes
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2007 Sky Gilbert
All rights reserved.
If I'm going to tell you about it, I have to start back in 1951, with the black apartment and the black sheets. At the time I was being melodramatic, but for good reason. Like Masha in The Three Sisters I was in mourning for my life. Or perhaps I should say I was in mourning for someone else's life, for the life of the main character in my first novel.
It was strange, the way I wrote the damn thing. I started it, or at least started writing about the character, before I went off to war, and then wrote some of it while the war was on, and then some after. Around the time I got the black apartment I was coming to terms with the fact that the novel was going to be over, and there wasn't going to be anything more for me to write about the character. That is, I'd written the character out. Or perhaps that isn't an accurate thing to say. The feeling wasn't exactly that I had written the character out, because the guy had become much more real to me than that. I had the feeling he was my best friend, the best friend I'd never had, and I was having real trouble saying goodbye. I was certain that he had another life after the novel, a life that he was continuing to live — only I wasn't invited to participate. I know it's a concept that's pretty hard to get your mind around, but if you're a writer you might understand.
I don't think it's completely crazy to think that characters in novels have lives of their own. If you want some intellectual justification for the concept all you have to do is go back to old Scaligero, a medieval scholar who was a great classifier — he was even worse than Aristotle in that respect — really into naming things, into ordering the universe. Strangely enough, for such an anal-retentive guy, he was also really sensitive to great literature. At one point when talking about what reality is and is not, he suggested that the characters the poet Virgil had created were actually real, that they actually lived. He said, anyway, that they were more real than reality itself, because they were so beautiful.
Now, I'm not saying the character I created was that beautiful, but what I am saying is that he was beautiful to me. Actually, talking about it like this feels a little strange. I begin to sound like a flit. I guess the best way to describe it would be to say that the character was like the brother I never had. He thought like I did, and generally behaved like I did, liked the things I liked, hated the things I hated. Except, naturally, he wasn't me. The punishment for having created a character that is so alive for you, and such a great pal, is that when you have to say goodbye, you don't want to. Ultimately you can't believe he's gone. It's not like you can go back to your own book and read it again, like other people can, and get reacquainted. It's just not possible. The experience of creating a character is not the same as reading about him. If you read about characters in a book, when you get lonely for them you can read the book again. But no experience can ever compare to giving birth to a character. That's what it's like, giving birth. It's the closest you'll ever get to another human being, real or not.
All this was clear to me at the time, crystal clear. I was like a parent saying goodbye to a child, or a lover breaking up with a beautiful girl. Jesus, I've been in that situation too many times. The worst thing about saying goodbye to a beautiful girl is thinking about some other guy with her. No matter how much you hate her, how she drives you nuts, and even if you think she's stupid and you want to throttle her, when it's over you only remember the good times — like when she was eating some crazy food like sardines, or she made you french fries that were really tasty, or the way she said "I love you" when you asked her to, on cue, and it always came out right. And then you imagine her eating sardines in front of some creepy guy, some fat jerk — or worse, some skinny little critic with glasses, some guy who thinks your writing is fundamentally flawed or even "quixotic." Maybe you imagine him kissing her neck — assuming she had a fabulous neck — and you want to die, the feeling is so bad.
This was the state I was in. I had this feeling in the pit of my stomach like someone had punched me, all because this character wasn't going to be my friend anymore. It wasn't something I could go to a psychiatrist about. Really, what would I say? I have to say goodbye to a character who's going to go on living his life without me? I think they'd figure I was certifiable for sure. Guys have been put away for less. Anyway, there was no one I could go to, no one I could talk to about this because it was so wacky.
On top of it, I wasn't really trying to get rid of the hurt. This, again, is how it was similar to ending an affair. There are times after you break up with someone — or are broken up with — when you definitely should be forgetting about the whole thing and moving on, but, on purpose, you're not. You're doing exactly what you shouldn't be doing; you're nurturing all the pain, all the hurt. Why? Because you know that when the hurt goes away, then the last connection you have with that loved person is gone too.
The whole situation was made a lot worse by jazz. I know it sounds strange, but this time in my life probably pretty well accounts for my lifelong aversion to the style. Okay, that's not really true. What irritates me is the concept of jazz. But I don't like even talking about words like "style" and "concept" when I think of jazz because they don't apply. Forgive me if you're a jazz fan, but I really do think the whole thing is bogus.
Now there are two different kinds of jazz. There's the kind of jazz that isn't jazz — which is okay, I guess — but it's not jazz. And then there's jazz itself, which is pretentious, and lousy, and generally stupid. I should explain. The jazz that is not jazz is when a guy plays some tune on the piano, a tune he didn't even write, a tune in the public domain, and then adds some little doodads and gee-jobs here and there, some trills, and scales, and whatever else tickles his goddamn fancy. In other words, it involves playing around and so-called improvising with what is already written. The only problem is that the only thing good about this type of so-called jazz is the tune itself, the tune somebody else wrote. What you are doing, listening to the so-called jazz musician, is straining to hear the tune you can barely hear because the guy is fooling around with it like crazy and ruining your experience of the tune — because all you'd like to do is just hear it for Christ's sake. So this type of so-called jazz is manipulative. It fools you into thinking you like it when all you like is something that the musician isn't doing.
Then there's the second type of jazz. It's much worse, and has pretty much taken over these days, because the first type of jazz is now considered old-fashioned. This second kind is epitomized by Miles Davis. And yeah, I guess they can call it jazz if they want to, because it is, essentially, unlistenable. You can go on all you want to about Miles Davis — what a genius he is, how nobody can match him — but wake up and smell the coffee. It just sounds like noise. There is no tune, no music, nothing. It's as bad as modern, avant-garde classical music — which is why the eggheads like it. God help you if you try to hum it — hummable would be too commercial. Anyway, this Miles Davis type of jazz is unbelievably pretentious, and people like to sit around for hours with their eyes closed snapping their fingers saying, "Oh yeah, this part, you've got to listen to this part, it's so fabulous, so perfect, so beautiful." And you listen to it and it's just noise. It makes perfect sense that this kind of jazz came along. It's perfect for all the pseudo artists. They can become experts at it. It doesn't require taste or discernment — all you have to do is memorize the names of all the gods of jazz and then go on about the recordings, like the one by Miles Davis called Awake in Spain or something. Anyway, it's about Spain — except it isn't. All you have to do is go on and on about these records and you become an instant expert. Pretentious people love it.
And these jazz clubs, they are the worst. Just a bunch of people sitting around congratulating themselves on how musically savvy they are, and adoring their icons, the jazz musicians, who are usually stoned out of their minds and not very talented. I know you might think it's petty or ungenerous of me to hate jazz so much but it's the way I feel. And remember, I'm not talking about any of the real so-called jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald or Dinah Washington. These gals knew how to sing tunes; they were not singing jazz really. Ella had to do that scat stuff to please the aficionados — the doowat doo-wat stuff — so they could imagine they were listening to the real ponderous thing.
To get back to my story, jazz was just beginning to get big in Greenwich Village at the time, and they had all these little clubs where people like Charlie Parker would play, and I couldn't have been more turned off by the whole production. This was a problem because the one thing that would have gotten me out of my funk would have been to go out at night and, you know, have a cigarette and a drink in one of these clubs and meet some beautiful jazz gal, but I couldn't stand it. I'm sure they would have been cute in their little turtlenecks — turtlenecks were in vogue. But I knew I would have gotten all excited about one of these cute things only to find out she was really into Miles Davis, and it would have made me want to vomit.
So what did I do? Perversely, I turned my apartment into kind of a jazz club. That is, it was all black anyway, like the clubs, and you got to it by going down a basement stairway at the front of the house. There were just two rooms: one big one at the front and then a smaller room at the back that was my study, where I finished working on my book. I liked that little study because there were no windows at all. There was a tiny grate, but it was all boarded up. I could work in there in complete silence and solitude. There was nothing in there but a desk and a typewriter. The front room was different; it had the bed with the black sheets.
Now I knew the black sheets were intimidating. Women probably thought I was some sort of sex sorcerer or something, and nothing could be further from the truth. I'm an ordinary guy in that department, too ordinary probably. Maybe it's why so many of my relationships don't work out — I'm probably lousy in bed. Not that I care one way or the other, which I'm sure is a big problem. But I don't really want to think about that. Anyway, I had black sheets. But not satin. I mean, have you ever lain down on satin sheets? They don't work. You slide off. Literally, you slide out of bed onto the floor. What good is that? The point of having a bed is you want to be in it, not on the floor. So the sheets were black, but not satin, and there was a picture of my favorite yogi on the wall because I was starting to get into that, and there were lots of candles, and all my favorite books on shelves. Then at the front of the apartment, right next to the door that opened onto the stairs, I had a little shelf and some stools set up, almost like a bar, so I could sit at my own little bar and look out the little cellar window through the grating at the pavement. The window was about a yard high off the pavement, so all I could see were people's feet. There were some flowers in front of the window, and I usually didn't have any lights on at night when I was sitting there. It was a great place to be a voyeur.
So what I used to do was play my music, and have a drink or a smoke, and work on being sad. Seriously. That's what I did. I would nurture the sadness, make it grow. I had this recording of Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" by Sarah Vaughn, which, for sure, was not jazz. She would sing it slower and slower each verse, and it got sadder and sadder until it was unbearable. I would also listen to the first movement of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto no. 3. I skipped the second and third movement because they were boring. It's a dark piece of music, which to me always seems to mean rainy days. Rainy days and sitting by my basement window looking at the feet, nurturing my pain. I really began to get into feet.
Have you ever looked at feet, and really thought about them? I'm not talking about some sick fetish; I'm talking about what feet say about people.
Well, I saw a lot of them, and they can be expressive. Some feet are happy, some feet are sad. Girls' feet are usually beautiful, and sexy, and cheery. I was nurturing my pain most during the summer so I saw a lot of open-toed slingback things. Very cheery. High heels are always heartbreaking. But they do look so elegant and special. In those days women used to wear a lot of them. And the guys' shoes? It really was more about trying to figure out what type of guy would buy those shoes. You could tell the really horrible guys — they had horrible shoes, pretentious and expensive, ridiculous most of the time. And then there were the real shoes. Sad shoes, the ones that showed a lot of wear and tear, and you could tell that the owner would like to buy new ones but he couldn't. You know what really broke my heart? The patched shoes. When somebody has to patch their shoes, then you know they're really poor. And on the girls, that's especially touching. Once I even saw a girl who was wearing patched shoes, little red high heels, and she had matching patched stockings. Women had to wear patched stockings during the war because stockings were scarce. But after the war, if a woman wore patched stockings you knew she was really just plain, old-fashioned poor. I wanted to run up there and hug the woman with the patched shoes and the patched stockings. But I didn't, I was too depressed.
So this dark, black depression thing went on and on. It got to a point where I figured that the only way I could get out of the depression was to get a real woman in my life, someone who would make me forget all about my main character.
It was then that I decided it was time to fall in love.
* * *
The best way to get an idea about what kind of guy I am is to think of a train station. When I'm trying to figure out if someone is a good person or not, I always apply the same test. What you do is you take a mental image of someone, and you put them in a train station. Then you ask yourself: if they were waiting for a train, what kind of a person would they be? You know, there's the old lady sitting all alone in the corner, dressed up to kill. She's probably taking the train to church. There are a couple of short-skirted sexy-type girls. Maybe they're wearing a little leather or something, hoping to meet up with some prince of a guy. There's the sensitive boy, sitting in the corner, reading a book. Then there's the ugly guy. There's always got to be an ugly one. Either the type who knows he's ugly — that's the more pitiful kind — or the type who doesn't have any idea. People stay away from him. Actually, he smells, and doesn't know it, which is the most pitiful thing of all. Still, it's better not to know. Then there's the happy family, with Dad wearing some tacky vacation shirt, and Mom all dolled up for the trip, but a little frayed around the edges, the way mothers are. And the little boy is teasing the little girl, the way brothers always do. The little girl is wearing a pink cotton dress. There's a moderate amount of noise, in general. But you don't feel claustrophobic, because there's one of those big stone ceilings with the old fan way up high, circulating the air.
Excerpted from Brother Dumb by Sky Gilbert, Michael Holmes. Copyright © 2007 Sky Gilbert. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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