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American Idols 

Wednesday, Jul 10 2002
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A few weeks after the death of John Cassavetes in 1989, I was out drinking with an Australian documentarian who toasted the late filmmaker for never selling out. ”Say what you will about him,“ Dennis bellowed, ”you have to admit that he stayed the distance.“

I thought of these words as I read Waiting Period, the new book by the 74-year-old, L.A.-based novelist Hubert Selby Jr., who shares Cassavetes‘ cussed insistence on grappling with human passions in a way that most people find weird, even scary. Although you wouldn’t know it from the press coverage (for instance, David Ebershoff‘s clueless review in last Sunday’s L.A. Times), Selby is a major American author who has produced at least two novels of indisputable greatness -- Last Exit to Brooklyn and The Room -- and would, in a just world, be reckoned superior to such sleek literary politicians as John Updike or faux renegades as William Burroughs, the Deepak Chopra of junkie-lifestyle hipsterism.

Selby has always had a gift for making you feel the envies, lusts, murderous rages and devouring melancholies that boil beneath the surface of daily life. This takes a bleakly funny form in Waiting Period, a warped tale of justice whose antihero Jack begins the book by deciding to shoot himself, but during the waiting period for getting his gun, decides it would be wiser to poison those who‘ve made the world so miserable. And so he starts doing just that, while we follow his every thought in a claustrophobic interior monologue occasionally punctuated by a second voice (God’s? Satan‘s? Selby’s?) that appears to endorse his lethal antics. By the time Jack goes after a white-racist murderer, we can‘t quite tell whether we’re supposed to think this liberal vigilante is crazy or distributing an Old Testament form of moral retribution. What carries us along is Selby‘s style, whose supremely modern rhythms perfectly capture the eddies of a man’s innermost thoughts and call forth echoes of urban masters from Dostoyevsky to Celine and Jim Thompson. It‘s the voice of the outsider who’s attuned to everything the official culture won‘t say, or maybe can’t say, about who we actually are.

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While Selby‘s work doesn’t sell in great numbers, he has always remained faithful to his way of seeing, which is another way of saying that he has integrity. Ever since the Romantics, Western culture has celebrated artists for pursuing their own unique visions, especially if it meant living free of ordinary society. Naturally, this didn‘t mean that writers or painters had to forgo all interest in fame or comfort (nobody expected Picasso to stay in a garret once his paintings started to sell) or that the culture business wasn’t dominated by money. But celebrity and riches weren‘t essential to the bohemian ideal, the belief that it’s honorable to spend your whole life making art, even if your paintings never sell, editors hate your poems or you tread the boards for years without ever being discovered by a big producer.

Not so long ago, there was grandeur in such a life, and the grandeur lay in the fact that it had no guarantees or safety nets -- you could wind up at 60, broke and unknown, having spent a lifetime working at jobs far beneath your capabilities. It‘s easy to picture a Godard who never got to make Breathless, a Bukowski never taken to Musso’s by Sean and Madonna.

But ideas of the artist are hardly immutable, and we now live in a culture that shows very little respect for those who don‘t make it. A TV exec recently told me, ”If a show’s not a hit, it‘s nothing.“ And what’s spooky is that the same attitude now dominates our society. New York magazine‘s Michael Wolff recently noted that the Manhattan elite has turned on longtime favorite Woody Allen, not simply because his movies have slipped and his social life is unsavory, but because he’s entered an embarrassing state of ”hitlessness.“ Things are even worse for those who were never hot. To use the sneering term of American Idol‘s despised judge Simon Cowell, our culture now sees them as ”losers.“

Meanwhile, of course, the media relentlessly promote the ”winners.“ Magazines keep churning out Power Lists (Entertainment Weekly’s recent ”It“ list anointed such titans as Lara Flynn Boyle), there‘s no escaping the articles about 18-year-old novelist Nick McDonell, who’s just published a Manhattan knockoff of Less Than Zero, and every paper in America has urged us to read Alice Sebold‘s The Lovely Bones (my wife did, and liked it fine). A couple of Sundays ago, the L.A. Times ran a big article on novelist Michael Chabon’s dealings with Hollywood, which sounded pretty darn pleasant: Why, the dude‘s getting six-figure options on short stories he hasn’t even written yet.

Now, Chabon‘s a genuine literary talent, so I don’t begrudge him the money (okay, maybe a little), but what made the story depressing was its fixation on his paychecks. Unlike earlier generations of writers in Hollywood who savaged the industry because they were ashamed to be hooked on its money, Chabon had nothing but good things to say about his dealings with Scott Rudin, even praising the ”fruitful“ notes that the thuggish but sensitive producer made on his scripts. (God, I‘d love to see those.)

Then again, how could we expect otherwise? Selling out has become the national ethic. Presidents auction off nights in the Lincoln Bedroom or hit up drug companies for contributions right after proposing policies favorable to those very corporations. CEOs lie to inflate stock values so they can make a killing by selling off their own shares at artificial highs. Fabulously rich filmmakers like Spielberg stick product placements into ”personal“ movies, journalists like Andrew Sullivan cheerfully appear in Gap ads, The Best Damn Sports Show Period lets advertisers come up with skits and segments. You might chart our culture’s changes by measuring the distance between Herman Melville writing Moby-Dick, a viciously panned novel that anatomized the dark whorls of the American psyche, and his distant relative Moby, who uses that white whale‘s name to trademark the music that he instantly sells to commercials.

I remember my disillusionment when Lou Reed and Miles Davis first turned up on TV pitching motorcycles -- it felt like a betrayal of some grand idea -- but those born after 1970 would probably think me naive. They were raised to see such behavior as a necessary part of the gig: It’s advertising, cross-promotion, branding. In fact, the moralistic phrase ”selling out“ barely makes sense in a society in which almost everyone is implicated with corporations and media (I myself worked happily for several years at Vogue), a society in which agonized shrieks of despair can quickly be turned into corporate product -- and mansions for the shriekers. This isn‘t to say that every artist is eagerly grabbing at the golden ring (I haven’t yet seen Thomas Pynchon flaunting his American Express card) or that it‘s become impossible to create good art: Moby’s done some terrific songs. But our familiar ideas of the rebel and sellout no longer mean what they once did. The romantic era of the artist-as-outsider is over, a brief historical glitch in the long, complicated history of patronage. This is the age of the artist-entrepreneur.

As we try to figure out what exactly this might mean (do you enjoy David Byrne‘s music for Windows XP?) and get used to a society that increasingly respects only winners, I keep thinking about all the unknown artists out there who continue to pursue dreams colored with romantic idealism. L.A. is filled with writers, actors, musicians, painters, comedians, performance artists, photographers and filmmakers, and we all know gifted, hard-working souls who never made it because they’re unlucky, lacked connections, grew self-destructive, came along too early or too late, had slightly the wrong face, didn‘t know how to play the game or had just enough talent to make trying an inner necessity but not enough to make them great (the universe can be cruel this way). In these days when Adam Sandler tops Forbes’ star-power rankings, we should be saluting the heroism of the men and women who spend long years waiting tables or riding buses in pursuit of some grander dream. In such devotion, there is no little nobility.

Speaking of which, I met Selby once, nearly a decade ago, when I drove him to a studio to do an interview for a documentary. Although he‘s known for his writing’s dark intensity, he was all decency, warmth and intelligence -- the crew declared him a Wise Man. What I remember most clearly is the eagerness with which he accepted his small honorarium (he was obviously broke) and the worn look of his small apartment. I drove off stunned and ashamed that one of our greatest novelists should, in his 60s, have to live so humbly. I haven‘t seen him since, but I’m told he still lives in that apartment, still needs money and still keeps on writing. He‘s staying the distance.

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