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In the early 1970s, the polymorphously great Swiss writer Max Frisch, renowned in this country, though not renowned enough, for novels such as I'm Not Stiller, Man in the Holocene and Homo Faber-flew to New York to embark upon one of those humiliating treks through the border region of celebrity known as the book tour. This one, though, took an unexpected turn: in the offices of his American publisher, Frisch, who was then in his early sixties, met and quickly began an affair with a woman more than thirty years his junior who worked in the publicity department. The centerpiece of this fling was a secret weekend trip to an inn on the eastern shore of Long Island; not long after-ward, when his tour came to an end, Frisch flew home to Switzerland and the young publicist returned equably to her tiny Manhattan apartment and low-paying job. They spoke by phone only once after that.
To write a nonfiction book about such a liaison sounds, at first blush, like an exercise in self-aggrandizement. Montauk is anything but. For as it dawns on Frisch, over the course of that eponymous weekend trip, how perfectly the truncated, ersatz intimacy of this no-stakes love affair suits his stunted emotional capacities, his middle-aged satisfaction gives way to a kind of retrospective horror-and Montauk becomes a prism through which the author reviews, freshly and pitilessly, a lifetime of mostly catastrophic relationships with women: three failed marriages (one to the Swedish poet Ingeborg Bachmann), an adult daughter to whom he rarely speaks. All this personal history lies beneath Frisch's May-December idyll like an iceberg whose true dimensions and dangers his young lover will never have to see; and even as their weekend ends contentedly in a Sunday evening traffic jam on the Long Island Expressway, Frisch (writing sometimes in the first person, sometimes in third) cannot make himself forget that this ignorance, this amicable shallowness, is the key to their genuine affection for one another:
"Presumably she too had been somewhat nervous that this weekend might go wrong. Now it is no longer necessary to gloss over the nervousness . . . They know too little and at the same time too much about each other just to chat superficially. He does not even know yet in what area Lynn is vulnerable and what would lead to their first quarrel. Lynn does not seem in fact to be thinking about it at all. Once in a while does no harm. You need a marriage, a long one, to become a monster."
Frisch died in 1991, at the age of seventy- nine. It beggars belief that this technically and morally inspirational template of the autobiographical art could have fallen out of print just two years after its American publication in 1976. Or perhaps it shouldn't: maybe it's inevitable that this decade's memoir boom, which is really about the primacy of personal sentiment, should come to us uncomplicated even by its own recent history.
You can read The Burnt Orange Heresy as either a murder mystery or a parable about the hoax element in modern art. Charles Willeford's 1971 novel-which Carroll & Graf will reissue in January 2000-gives satisfaction on both counts. It is an inverted detective story in the approved noir manner: the first-person narration takes us into the killer's mind. Yet not until digesting most of the book does the fallible reader guess who is to be murdered and why. The plot centers on a painter named Jacques Debierue, avatar of "Nihilistic Surrealism," whose most famous work is "No. One." meaning both "number one" and " nobody." Debierue, a European transplant, lives in Willeford country: Palm Beach, Florida. James Figueras, an art critic with his eye on the main chance, obtains an interview with the great recluse. To ingratiate himself with an influential collector, he agrees to steal one of Debierue's paintings.
The catch is that there are no paintings to steal. Like a character in a Borges fable embodying the aesthetics of Mallarmé, Debierue is convinced his ideas are so far superior to any possible execution that in logical consequence he does not paint. Instead he has committed his life to the "unfulfilled preparation for painting." He puts in his four hours daily, "a slave to hope," yet always refuses in the end to violate "the virgin canvas." Figueras has no such compunction. After breaking into Debierue's pristine studio and discovering there is nothing to pilfer, he sets fire to the place, counterfeits a painting by Debierue, forges his signature, then writes the article that offers the definitive interpretation of works that never existed. In a curious way it is as if painter and writer have colluded to invent Debierue's "American period." Willeford, highly esteemed for his Hoke Moseley novels, weaves the aesthetic theory and the criminal mischief expertly together. The Burnt Orange Heresy is a rich enigma: a monument to "a qualified Nothing," suggestive of "deep despair" on the one hand and total "dedication to artistic expression" on the other. It is noir not only in the sense of, say, Ad Reinhardt's black-on-black canvases, but also in the violent romantic sense of Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Jacques Tourneur's "Out of the Past."
Since I've never climbed a mountain and never hankered to, it's weird that I obsessively read and reread mountaineering books. I'd guess what I'm hankering for is the sublime, in the antique literary sense of the term: terrifying majesty, majestic terror. The summit ridge of Everest in whiteout conditions, the Second Step looming hopelessly high above already- exhausted climbers, that psychedelically scary moment when they suddenly see no more mountain above them and understand that they're, at the highest place in the world. But- and here's the weird thing within the weird thing-my favorite of these books, writer and photographer Galen Rowell's In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods, only tells about the second-highest place in the world. Pakistan's K2, less than two rope lengths lower than Everest, is a shapelier Mountain-if looks like nature copied it from the label of a soda bottle- and a tougher climb. Everest, of course, has the single best mountaineering story-Mallory and Irvine--but there's a handful of K2 stories almost as creepy-deepy, and Rowell tells 'em the way I like to hear'em. "Wolfe and Pasang dangled from the rope ... Only two hundred feet farther down, great ice cliffs dropped off 6,500 feet toward the Godwin- Austen glacier ... The fall was only an overture for the entirely unanticipated tragedy to come."
Rowell devotes most of the book, though, to his firsthand account of the luckless, rancorous 1975 American K2 expedition led by Jim Whittaker, whose lead climbers had to turn back while still more than a vertical mile from the summit. After bad weather and strikes by the hundreds of local porters they'd hired-with eighteen other expeditions in the Karakoram Himalaya that spring, it was a seller's market for labor-the defeated team came home to zany allegations that they'd been the Trojan horse for some high-altitude CIA operation. But even before they reached the mountain, the climbers had begun to hate each other and split up into factions; amazingly, they were willing to keep the commitment they'd made to hand Rowell their diaries. "Wick is sitting on the fence, I think," wrote one team member of a colleague, "wanting to stay in good with Jim ... I hope it's a picket fence and he gets one up the ass." Another wrote that Whittaker's twin brother, Lou, also on the expedition, "should end up with an ice ax in the back of his head or a bullet between his eyes." Sublimity and soap opera: just the right combination for the nightstand.
This isn't the book Rowell, an ambitious climber and a heart-on-sleeve romantic, had wanted to end up writing. No wonder it works so well: his conflicted feelings are all over it, from the grandiloquent title to those near-psychotic diary entries, from illustrious past expeditions to the 1975 fiasco, from his calendar-ready color photos of soaring Mountain peaks to his black-and-white shot of an excrement-strewn field many days' march from the nearest PortoSan. "A three-day porter strike," he writes, "meant eighteen hundred turds." This from the guy who early in the book tells us that he came to the Karakoram hoping to find "the land of my dreams ,-a cliché that would shame a " real" writer, but that tells more about him than he could've revealed after eight hours of Flaubertian agonies. In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods is utterly transparent: even its crude suspense-building devices ("only an overture for the entirely unanticipated tragedy to come"), which Rowell must have learned from his own reading in mountaineering books, are perfectly straightforward in their manipulativeness. To read it is to be there with Rowell and his unhappy colleagues in the icy landscape they're loving and defiling-and safe at home at the same time, warm and guilt-free, thousands of miles and a quarter of a century away.
Earlier this year, Tom Wolfe launched a bitter public attack against my upcoming novel, Thumbsucker, of which he had not read a single page. Such is Wolfe's critical acumen, however, that he was able to dismiss the book and the entire coming-of- age genre that be assumed it represented-on the basis of the title alone, which be had apparently glimpsed in a newspaper. Portraying the novel as a specimen of what he dubbed, with his flair for stirring coinages, "thumbsucking fiction," be denounced the book as narcissistic, implicitly contrasting its triviality with his own sprawling supernarratives.
Initially, I laughed off Wolfe's remarks as self-serving and uninformed, but after rereading my novel I agree with him. Indeed, I now regard his criticisms as not merely insightful, but heroic, in that they raise a crucial moral alarm against a book that, should it gain an audience, might well advance the ongoing corruption of American literary standards, displacing the manly reportorial realism that Wolfe has for so long labored to institutionalize with a feminized, lightweight lyricism whose widespread acceptance would bode ill for all of us, particularly the young. As such, I now consider it my duty as the author of this offensive work to carry even further Wolfe's condemnation in hopes of neutralizing, from the start, a potentially harmful literary contagion. Not only is Justin Cobb, the novel's protagonist, not a man in full, he is barely a man in part. Fourteen and in dire need of orthodontia as a result of his infantile oral obsession, Cobb is the sort of distracted, aimless youth that fashionably decadent writers have, for decades, insisted represent a nation adrift. Cobb (Ty Cobb? A cob of corn?) is a child of the northern heartland, a region that has long been easily maligned for its alleged sterility and blandness. Thumbsucker avoids this trap, only to fall headfirst into another one. Cobb's Shandstrom Falls, a Minnesota river town, is rendered as a hive of lonesome grotesques, from a sexually uncertain speech coach who shaves his head and plies his team with pep pills to a glib, alcoholic TV actor who checks himself into the local rehabilitation clinic, his rectum strained to bursting with smuggled narcotics. Everyone in Shandstrom Falls, it seems, suffers from an addiction of some kind (as though the question of human character comes down to what substance one happens to abuse!), and Cobb is no exception. When an implausibly philosophical dentist manages to wean him from his thumb, he immediately takes up booze and assorted other intoxicants before moving On to sex, sports, work, and God. Cobb moves from compulsion to compulsion, turning in pointless, nihilist circles that are meant to typify,one gathers, the restlessness of eighties America, when the story is set. Naturally, Cobb's parents are worried for him, but the book treats their compassion and concern with unwavering contempt, as if it is somehow nobler to need assistance than to render it. Mike, the sporting- goods-salesman father, and Audrey, the mother who works as a nurse, are referred to by their first names throughout the story, further robbing them of authority.
Thumbsucker represents maturity as an illness to be avoided at all costs. As mentioned above, the time is the eighties, the decade of the great scapegoat, Ronald Reagan, whose purported sins will be evoked as long as there are grant-supported artistes. Though his reputation continues to rise with serious historians of the period, it continues to sink with thirtysomething male novelists, who seem to be gripped by chronic Oedipal envy of the Great Communicator. In fact, Thumbsucker opens with Reagan's shooting, facetiously aligning that near tragedy with the advent of Cobb's mysterious misery. After this, Reagan vanishes from the book, in name, but his dread influence persists. Buoyed up by the prosperity born of tax cuts and supply side economics, Shandstrom Falls goes from simple village to glitzy exurb, a sociological fall. The change is summed up in a deeply biased chapter devoted to Cobb's first summer job. Pumping gas for a crooked New Age boss who owns a Standard Oil franchise and preaches a crackpot gospel of 11 abundance," Cobb is introduced in stages to the supposed latent criminality of modern capitalism. The reader is encouraged to empathize as Cobb goes from wearing the company's cap with pride to letting himself, and the station, go to hell, "leading to a catastrophic spiral of plugged-up toilets, overflowing trash cans, vandalized towel dispensers, and flooded floors. The men's room graffiti grew filthier and bolder, climaxing in a life-size drawing of revving chain saws attacking a woman's crotch." It's not hard to decipher the politics of this passage, a thinly veiled jab at the chaos of the free market and its fancied roots in patriarchal culture. Thumbsucker could use more patriarchy. It might shake Cobb out of his self- indulgent funk. Instead, he's given a prescription for Ritalin. Drugged, he at least has some drive (though not a lot of it), while the novel at last has a social issue, the doping of unruly American boys, that is capable of redeeming its selfabsorption. Sadly, Thumbsucker skirts the controversy, focusing exclusively on Cobb's subjective reaction to the pills. He gives them up when a flighty girlfriend claims to taste their chemicals in her mouth after a vigorous session of oral coupling. By this time, Cobb has converted to Mormonism along with his troubled parents and kid brother. Oddly enough, the absurd religion, with its cultish doctrines and loony rituals, is treated respectfully, even sympathetically. Faith, even illegitimate faith, is better than no faith at all-is that the message? If so, it evaporates when Cobb's new piety degenerates into a cover for his attraction to a precociously sexual descendant of Brigham Young himself. What is this meant to signify? Who knows? Another weak slap at the patriarchy, possibly. Thumbsucker, as Wolfe so bravely noted without so much as opening its cover, is as juvenile and unfulfilling as the activity it takes its name from.