Read an Excerpt
By Jason Anderson, Jennifer Hale
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2005 Jason Anderson
All rights reserved.
"Where any American can be BLAM!
The nation must be defended and BLAM!
The, ah, dawn of the next century BLAM!"
I listened to the looped litany of rhetoric and violence pouring out of the car stereo. I knew the voice—we all knew the voice. And like everyone in the room that night, I'd heard most of the words before in other, more reverent contexts. Now they'd been diced, scrambled, fried, and refried. The artist had strung together tiny excerpts of speeches by President Cannon then punctuated each fragment with the sound of a gunshot. Since the fragments were all roughly the same length, the shots created a steady beat—it was like a hip-hop track in which the rapper dodged a bullet after delivering every line. Thus was Cannon's familiar oratory style juxtaposed with the blunt aural signifier of his violent death—to wit, BLAM!. When I first heard it, I was impressed. After another two minutes, its value as entertainment had plummeted.
"The, ah, Ladies Home Auxiliary BLAM!
Students should ask not what they can do BLAM!
Millions of hungry children who miss BLAM!"
The car itself was a black 1962 Flavelle convertible, the same make and model as the car Cannon was killed in. The actual death car had a room of its own in the Smithsonian. This facsimile was parked in the centre of a white-walled gallery in Chelsea. The body of the car was spotted with bullet holes, several of them wet with what looked like blood. I thought: what kind of mileage do you get in a car with stigmata?
The convertible was surrounded by a cordon of yellow police tape and a wine-swilling throng of media professionals in black blazers and art scenesters in reconditioned clothes and battered sneakers. They talked through and over the racket blaring from the Flavelle's stereo. Valiant and determined as he'd been in life, their former leader sallied forth.
"The men of the 66th Congress BLAM!
We've got some entertainers who BLAM!
The fine, free-thinking people of BLAM!"
It was getting old. It all was. I had been standing around the gallery for half an hour, wallflowered once again by my friend Colin. He would do this to me sometimes—invite me somewhere promising free drinks and stimulating company, then leave me standing alone in a room full of sleekly dressed magazine folk who ignored me with the same efficiency in person as they did my phone calls and e-mails. Colin didn't inflict these woes upon me out of cruelty. His single-mindedness deprived him of tact. He would see someone he needed to cajole about some arcane aspect of the Cannon assassination and would forget about me. I would get our drinks and stake out a position in the room, shifting my weight from one foot to the other while his beverage grew warmer in my hand. I had the desperate air of a child that had been abandoned in a department store and was in the process of soiling himself.
That night, the site of my slow mortification was a media preview reception for Cannon: A President and His Art. This was not the exhibition itself—it was still in Los Angeles and wouldn't be in New York for another two months. As a result, the gallery only featured two pieces. The first was the car, a new installation work by Vito Acevedo. According to the pamphlet I struggled to read while holding a drink in each hand, it was called Death Car: Cannon (1998). I would have preferred something more like The Antithesis of Parallax or The Icarus Kitchen or Untitled No. 19 or It's Conceptual, You're Not Supposed To "Get" It.
The second artwork was a nondescript photo collage by a Norwegian artist on the other side of the room. I fixated on a woman instead. I marveled at the delicacy of her features and the snugness of her sweater but it was her laugh that I noticed when I'd walked past her ten minutes earlier. The sound was musical and generous in spirit. She punctuated it with a shoulder shiver and a series of short breathy bursts. She was still talking to an olive-skinned man whose hair was short and spiky at the sides. I could tell that she enjoyed what he said though now I was too far away to hear her. There was only the ceaseless bombast of Cannon's death car rap, this weary monologue of perpetual assassination.
I was impatient for Colin's return. Whenever I accused him of neglecting me, Colin would say I wasn't taking advantage of the opportunity to network with editors and fellow writers who were far more prominent than I was. "These are the people who can make you," he told me once. "Give them a reason to."
That night in Chelsea, I had no such reason. I had only my envy for their style, confidence, and finesse. I had only the dying embers of the idiotic ambition that brought me to New York so that I could quietly fail. I didn't belong among their number. These people were actively conquering the world, whereas I'd used up all my resources getting out of Canada. I thought: no one sees me, no one at all. I thought: oh god, Nathan, could you cut the pity party for two minutes?
I looked around the room for my missing friend. Colin had been my ally since we were interns together at Hancock's magazine. His subsequent rise to prominence in the pages of The Betsey did not prevent him from consorting with me and I was pitifully grateful, despite his tactlessness. My gaze fell on Ms. Sweater again. She excitedly greeted another male companion. His hair was also short and spiky at the sides. I thought: maybe that haircut would work for me. I had been looking for ideas—for writing magazine stories, for making contacts, for getting noticed. So far the haircut was the only idea with promise.
"Connie and I would be very BLAM!
If a hunter wants to bag a bear BLAM!
The taxes faced by the average BLAM!"
I was getting a headache. I had finished my drink and was halfway through Colin's when I felt a flicker of nausea, too. Initially, I took it for a product of my anxiety. Then I noticed the stench of vomit wafting through the room. I'd been too busy watching Ms. Sweater to notice the commotion near the car. There was a man with his back to me, leaning over the side of the Flavelle. His shoulders were heaving as he retched onto the driver's seat.
"Germany is a country under BLAM!
The scourge of organized crime BLAM!"
A security guard with a gingery goatee came to the man's side and grabbed his elbow. The man tried to shake him off. I thought: this guy must be loaded. But he seemed perfectly sober when he resumed his standing position and carefully wiped his mouth with a handkerchief. The guard began to pull him away from the befouled installation piece. The art work was pungent. I saw people waving their hands in front of their faces and pinching their noses. Ms. Sweater put her hand over her mouth as if she might follow the man's example. I thought: I'll hold her hair back if she needs me to.
The man wrenched his arm away from the guard and leaned over the car again. I thought: he's not done. But instead of a further bout of reverse peristalsis, he reached out to punch the dashboard. Cannon's voice came to a halt.
"Wake up!" cried the man in a high nasal voice. "He lives among you! Wake up and see!"
I thought: maybe this is a performance-art thing. It was a good idea because the installation needed another dynamic element. But I couldn't understand what the vomit was supposed to represent, or why it had to smell so bad, or what the apocalyptic religious vibe was supposed to add to the experience.
People began to leave the gallery.
"Is this for real?" said a man behind me.
"It's some Cannon nut," said another man. "Some parties put anybody on the guest list."
A female gallery employee in wire-rimmed glasses blocked my view. "We need you to leave," she said as she hustled a group of us toward the door. "It's for your own safety."
"Please, sir, we don't know if it's an art terrorist or the real kind."
That was a good point, but I still resented her for being a killjoy. The mystery man was the hit of the evening. I was raised to believe in the right of free expression and the sanctity of copyrighted material but such was my sour mood, I enjoyed the despoiling of Acevedo's art work. It amazed me that Cannon's martyrdom—now thirty-five years in the past—continued to inspire so much pretentious crap. The art world needed more hecklers with nervous stomachs.
Nevertheless, I did appreciate the fresh air (or the Manhattan version of same) awaiting me outside. As the gallery crowd emptied out onto 23rd Street, I lost track of Ms. Sweater and found Colin instead. He was typically blasé.
"Show's over," he said. "I didn't even have time for a drink."
I let that comment slide. "Do you want to stick around to see what happens? It could be a good bit for The Betsey."
"I can't see how they'd be interested," he said. "Their office attracts his type every day. This one had the right idea, though. The inaccuracy of the car was profoundly irritating. The real death car had at least five holes. Everyone knows that." Colin hailed a cab. "I need that drink. I presume you do too."
"Anything to get that smell out of my head."
In the taxi, Colin called Ben, another friend from our Hancock's days. We told him to meet us at Dazzle Cuts in the East Village. Since Ben only lived half a block away, he was already waiting at a table when we arrived. Colin told him what happened at the gallery while I went to get drinks from the proprietor of Dazzle Cuts.
Phil was friendly but he never remembered my name. He grabbed two beers from the cooler and poured Colin his vodka tonic. He put the drinks in front of me and I paid him with a precious twenty.
"Do you want to give me a haircut, too?"
Phil looked pleased. "My first of the week!"
Dazzle Cuts had reached its peak of hipness two years before, when this converted barber shop was a haunt of the coolest New York bands, before it became populated by the suburban kids who'd read about it in the style bibles. When the punters moved onto the next spot, Dazzle Cuts was claimed by people in the neighborhood, like Ben and I. (Colin lived in Soho.) A marginal drop in bar prices reflected the new clientele.
There was a sign in the front window: "Haircuts Like Mom Used to Give You—$5." Originally, I'd misinterpreted the sign as irony. I did the same with the curled, faded pictures of well-coiffed male models on the walls—Troy with the gingery curls or Vance with the short back and sides—all evidence of the site's former life as a unisex salon. Phil was more bartender than barber but he deeply respected the scissory arts. During an outing with Colin and Ben the previous year, I asked Phil, "So can I still get a haircut?" He was beside himself. I don't think anyone had asked him for months. He told me—and this is nearly the only thing I'm good at, getting people to tell me things—his mother was a hairdresser. When he bought this place, he'd fully intended for it to retain some of its original function. "This was never meant to be a gimmick." One barber chair was intact. Drunks would spin around until they got too dizzy.
After delivering the drinks, I sat in the barber's chair and waited for Phil to bring the sheet. Ben called out to me from a few feet away. "Did you get a look at the puker?"
"Nope. He had his back to me."
"You should have interviewed him."
"He seemed preoccupied. Plus, Colin says there's no market for Cannon-nut stories."
"What about one on vomiting art critics?" asked Ben. "That could be a trend."
Phil came over with his scissors, clippers, and sheet. "So what are you looking for?"
"Make it short and spiky on the sides," I said.
Over at the table, Ben and Colin had begun one of their usual arguments. I tuned out while Phil fussed with the sheet.
I vaguely recognized the music on the stereo. It was Meat Locker, a British band big on rumbling bass lines, slackly paced drumming, and diatribes about market economics. It suited my mood.
"All set," said Phil. He lifted the scissors but was immediately called away by a newcomer at the bar. A Dazzle Cuts cut was a glacially slow process, which was another reason why Phil's chair didn't have many repeat customers. He constantly put down his scissors to serve drinks or talk up women, rarely making more than three consecutive snips.
I slipped my beer out from under the sheet, took a sip, then fussed with the sheet until it was straight and neat again. Bored by Meat Locker's drone, I zeroed in on Ben and Colin's conversation.
Ben hunched forward over the table. "It just goes on and on with you. You'll believe any wacko."
Colin shook his head. "I cannot see how you could accept the existence of a third participant and not give any credence to the possibility of a fourth or fifth. I have testimony from three different men representing at least two auxiliary teams. Cannon was targeted from multiple vantage points. That's elementary."
"That's paranoid bullshit."
"Fine, here are two pieces of information that have been repeatedly verified and that directly contravene the findings of the Miller Commission. One, that according to the extreme angle of the bullet that struck Cannon in his right shoulder, that shot had to have been fired from a position considerably higher than Cruz's on the second floor of the Hotel Atlantique.
"Two, the recording made by a policeman on the scene contains the noises of at least six distinct shots, more if you consider the possibility of a clustering pattern."
"Clustering pattern?" said Phil, once more at my side. "What are you guys talking about?"
"They're discussing the murder of the leader of the free world," I said.
"President McMurray is dead?" he asked.
"No, not him."
He assumed a grave expression. "Cannon."
Of course, the case was officially solved, but to hardly anyone's satisfaction. Colin was an expert at solving and un-solving it. A Chicago native who acted like a huffy New England prep—his accent was getting more and more complex—Colin landed a column in The Betsey, a glossy devoted to the history, legacy, and family scandals of President Theodore Ignatius Cannon (1921-63). The magazine took its name from Cannon's beloved yacht, reputed site of countless nautical bacchanals.
Colin investigated the conspiracy theories surrounding his assassination on that fabled afternoon of August 26, 1963. Hence the nature of this conversation. Hence the nature of nearly every conversation with Colin. I'd already had plenty of Cannon this evening but there was always more to go around.
"I think the way President Cannon lived and the things he believed in were more important than how he died," said Ben with uncharacteristic earnestness.
"That's very sweet," said Colin patronizingly. "My point is, you have to be savvier about these matters if you call yourself a journalist."
Ben smirked. "Who said I was a journalist?"
Though Ben co-edited a small magazine about Asian-American pop culture with another Korean from Colorado, he had been developing a TV show for Network X, a channel that was devoted to the most extreme extremes in the world of extreme lifestyles. Having signed a confidentiality agreement, Ben could only say his show was about music. He had been back and forth to Los Angeles for meetings. His skin was developing a reddish-bronze hue, as if he'd been jogging on a beach somewhere, a serious breach of cool.
I tried to mollify matters with another joke. "Clearly Ben has no use for your petty facts and neither do I. They sully the work of real writers."
Colin glared at me over his G&T. "That attitude has gotten you far in this world."
It was a cheap shot. "Maybe it pays better to be a paranoid, self-satisfied crank."
"Why do I have so many mean drunks here tonight?" Phil slapped me on the head. "Settle down, sport."
Another Meat Locker song oozed out of the speakers. It sounded so lethargic, it could have been moving backwards. Phil left to attend to other matters. This haircut was going to take all night.
"Are either of you gonna have time for coffee tomorrow?" I asked.
"I should be around," said Colin.
"The same," said Ben. "What have you got going on?"
Nothing. My freelance career was a dust bowl. "It's slow," I said. "Agonizingly slow."
"You should try Daphne," said Colin, referring to The Betsey's associate editor. "Pitch her some new pieces."
Excerpted from Showbiz by Jason Anderson, Jennifer Hale. Copyright © 2005 Jason Anderson. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.