By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Literature did have something to do with my gradual disillusionment with sports. Suddenly, I started reading and everything began to change. At 14, I bought my first hardcover novel, the week it was reviewed in the London newspapers in 1974 — Joseph Heller’s forbiddingly glum and plotless portrait of middle-aged corporate despair, Something Happened, on whose every word I hung. I’d moved on to a different school by then and had started to demonstrate a certain amount of talent in one subject (English) and just enough to hoodwink examiners in two others (French and History). Not only was I reading novels, but I’d started to read poetry as well — always a bad sign.
Dylan Thomas was my hero. So was Rimbaud. Catch-22, Heller’s madly funny first novel, was my bible. I read Thom Gunn, an initially orthodox English poet who’d exiled himself to San Francisco, gobbled vast quantities of LSD and gone completely native. I loved D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbowand Women in Love (both required texts) and Sartre’s The Age of Reason, still a potent portrait of postwar Parisian bohemia. One of the book’s characters shoplifted useless items for the sheer existential pleasure of it. Impressed by his nihilistic cool, I started doing the same, but cheated by stealing things I wanted (like a new Bob Dylan cassette).
The high point of my Sartrean shoplifting phase came, appropriately enough, on the Left Bank of Paris itself, when I spent two hours planning and then sweatily executing the theft of a shrink-wrapped edition of Allen Ginsberg’s Indian Journals in a huge, brightly lit bookstore open late into the evening on the Boulevard Something or Other. I was 15 at the time and, like a cat dropping a mouse at the feet of its owner, proudly presented my paperback trophy as a gift for my iconoclastic half brother, Brian, who was twice my age, far more talented and incomparably better-looking. It was 1975, and he was living with a sullen Frenchwoman who didn’t love him in a studio once owned by the American painter Hilaire Hiler, a friend of Henry Miller’s. When I handed him the Ginsberg, the first words out of his mouth were “Did you steal it?” That was Brian all over. He died of tobacco, alcohol and ineradicable inner demons in 1992. The last time I saw him, he was living in an apartment building that overlooked the Seine rather than another apartment building. This was fortunate, since it was Bastille Day, and to celebrate the occasion he fired a gun out the window — twice. He was a lot more Sartrean than I was.
Not all my reading was highfalutin. I was obsessed with Frederic Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, the best-selling thriller about an attempted assassination of Charles de Gaulle by a smooth-talking English hit man with an ice cube for a heart and a ruthless way with women. For months I crept around pretending that I too was plotting a hugely important assassination, though since I never read the papers and could barely name a world leader, I was stumped as to whom I should knock off. (The Headmaster?) So I just kept skulking through the shadows, my imagination fed by surrealist poetry (“The secret police have eyes the color of dust/and bicycles filled with perfume”), until eventually I moved on to other enthusiasms.
Politics wasn’t one of them, although I did have a faint attachment to anarchism. (Oscar Wilde’s “Selfishness is not doing what you want to do, it is asking other people to do what you want them to do” was my motto.) As for Marxism, I fell asleep reading the Communist Manifesto on the London Underground, which, as Jamie Lee Curtis reminded Kevin Kline’s delusional CIA agent in A Fish Called Wanda, “is not a political movement.” Philosophy in general was beyond my mental capacities anyway, except for Nietzsche, who was really an aphorist. Curiously, the girls I would later date often read philosophy for pleasure, including, eventually, my wife. My only explanation was that they all shared a “philosophical” approach to life — and thus to me.
Picturing myself on the streets of London when I was 17, I wrote a poem heavily influenced by the Beat poet Harold Norse, whose work I’d found in a Penguin compendium on the polished wooden shelves of the school library. My poem began:
I, a spy,
hovering on edges
of rain & loose ends . . .
I was coming of age without a true sense of self, perhaps no more than the banal consequence of a mostly absent father. I couldn’t quite take myself seriously or put myself forward as a person who wanted something definite or who had clearly articulated “goals.” (The only kind of “goals” I could conceive of were the ones professional soccer players score, which I still dreamed about endlessly.) As the Headmaster at my earlier school had perceived (Summer, 1973), “Brendan is still loathe [sic] to commit himself fully, and really ‘give,’ though he has all sorts of ability, acting art and games.” And I’m still loath to commit myself fully. Commitment is death. But so, I’ve gradually come to learn, is its opposite.
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