INTRODUCTION MORTAL DREADS
WITH A TOUCH of quiet pride the Author states that he has watched the Johnny Carson Show only once in his life. (The single blot on an otherwise exemplary record occurred when I was pressed, one night, into sitting through consummate dreariness to reach the moment when Robert Blake, a friend of many years even though he's an actor, was to sit and talk to Orson Welles, one of my heroes despite his hawking of inferior commercial wines. It was a moment I wish had been denied me. Bob, a good and decent and talented man, clever, witty and articulate, perhaps driven mad by the fame and cheap notoriety of having become a television cult hero for several seasons, proceeded to insult Mr. Welles in a manner I suppose he thought was bright badinage. It was a maleficent spectacle in overwhelming bad taste, culminating in Bob's passing a remark about Mr. Welles's girth.
(Welles sat silently for a moment as the audience--and I--winced in disbelief and horror. Then he said, very softly, very softly, "My weight is correctable only with enormous difficulty at my age, but I live with it comfortably; as opposed to your bad manners.")
There should be benign deities who would send ravens to pluck out one's eyes so such sights could be avoided.
I did not need to see my friend make an ass of himself. And I sat there thinking, for a wonder, is this what a vast segment of the American viewing public truly accepts as "the rebirth of conversation"? This endless babble and confluence of self-serving "celebrities" who warm studio sets with the indispensable intelligence that they'll be doing Pal Joey at the Country Squire Dinner Theatre in Lubbock,Texas from June 12th to 18th?
And I could not contain my sorrow that my friend had been driven mad by television, to sit there having been gulled into thinking he was having a "conversation" before so many millions of moon-white eyes in darkened bedrooms. But this time I will not inveigh against the Monster Video; that was the fulmination that served to introduce my previous collection of stories, Strange Wine.
No, this time I would speak of conversation; of speaking to the true and universal darkness that fills so much of our souls. Of mortal dreads and the value of such terrors as I present here.
I do a considerable number of college lectures every year. It helps pay the freight so I don't have to write television ever again. From my lips to the ear of god ... or whoever's in charge. And frequently I will say something about the human condition that seems perfectly rational and proper to me, because I know we all share the same thoughts. Invariably, some feep in the audience will attempt to pillory me with the stunning accusation, "You only said that to shock!"
My response is always the same:
"You bet your ass, slushface. Of course I said it to shock you (or wrote it to shock you). I don't know how you perceive my mission as a writer, but for me it is not a responsibility to reaffirm your concretized myths and provincial prejudices. It is not my job to lull you with a false sense of the rightness of the universe. This wonderful and terrible occupation of recreating the world in a different way, each time fresh and strange, is an act of revolutionary guerrilla warfare. I stir up the soup. I inconvenience you. I make your nose run and your eyes water. I spend my life and miles of visceral material in a glorious and painful series of midnight raids against complacency. It is my lot to wake with anger every morning, to lie down at night even angrier. All in pursuit of one truth that lies at the core of every jot of fiction ever written: we are all in the same skin ... but for the time it takes to read these stories I merely have the mouth. You see before you a child who never grew up, who does not know it's socially unacceptable to ask, 'Who farted?'"
Thus I try to codify in noble terms the obsession with Art and the inability of the writer to stop writing, to get along with others, to view without rancor the world as a gem, at once pure and perfect. But that's flapdoodle, of course. I write because I write. I can do no other.
It is the love of conversation.
I am anti-entropy. My work is foursquare for chaos. I spend my life personally, and my work professionally, keeping that soup boiling. Gadfly is what they call you when you are no longer dangerous, when the right magazines publish your work and you don't have to seek out obscure publications as homes for the really mean stuff, when they ask you to come and discuss matters of import with "celebrities" on the Johnny Carson Show. I much prefer troublemaker, malcontent, pain in the ass, desperado. As I've said elsewhere, I see myself as a combination of Jiminy Cricket and Zorro. Thus do I ennoble myself in the times when all the simple joys I've forsworn rush back on me as chances lost, and I'm left with only the work and something Irwin Shaw said: "Since I am not particularly devout, my chances for salvation lie in a place sometime in the future on a library shelf."