Grand Days: The Worst Book I Ever Wrote
From The Unbearables Present; The Worst Book I Ever Read which is out right now from Autonomedia.
The worst book I ever read was one I wrote myself. I’m not trying to be cute, or ironic or anything, and I’m not just talking about lousy prose or a lack of comprehensible plot -- though my book had no real plot (at the time I thought ‘plot’ in a piece of writing was an ethically challenged writer’s way of joining the great capitalist plot to keep the people down -- you know, like throwing already digested gruel on the ground in front of domesticated animals -- I figured a great book should make the reader work, thus heightening his, or her, consciousness.) There were no real characters in my manuscript and the prose was pretty crappy, a hodge-podge of Joycean nonsense -- most postmodern, read; contemporary, attempts at edgy or avant-garde literature come to grief on the reef of James Joyce.
I recently finished A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose by B. R. Myers, a screed attacking the second-rate writing of Paul Auster, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo and Annie Proulx, among others. (I would love to have gotten a piece from him for this anthology -- Hell, we should sell copies with his book shrink-wrapped to it -- like that textbook bundling thing.) Anyway, one of Myers’ criticisms of their novels is that they suffer from the ’andsies’ -- sentences that go on forever, subordinate clauses linked to each other by the word ’and.’ And, of course, it all goes back to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy -- one of the more famous passages in twentieth-century writing -- and one of the few totally enjoyable and easily understood passages in Ulysses. My book suffered from the ‘andsies,’ too, as well as a plethora of portmanteau words, also invented by Mr. Joyce, etc.
And my book was pretentious in other ways, as well. I was a college graduate, full of myself, thinking I knew more about many things than I did. I was so proud of my fucking insights -- when I split-up with my now ex-wife, one of her best zingers was, “You know what, Ronnie? Every one of your stupid insights was totally wrong!” I was driving a pick-up truck at the time, trying to merge into traffic on a bypass around the city of Reading, Pennsylvania, and I just about wiped out on a guard rail when she said that. Unfortunately, she was right -- more about that relationship later.
One of the ‘insights’ I thought I’d stumbled upon back then was the ‘Great Voyage Out and Back’ paradigm -- the Homeric adventure, then return home, sadder but wiser. Hell, Celine used the same template in Death on the Installment Plan. I love the ending of that book when the kid finally makes it home after surviving one horrific event after another, and falls asleep exhausted, his uncle covering him with a coat. So I was determined that my main character, viz; myself, would also undertake a heroic journey, experience sexual awakening and drug-fueled enlightenment in an outsized New York City and finally come full circle to some sort of self-realization back where he (I) started -- working in a bookstore.
Now this journey had to have a physical dimension as well as a metaphorical one; it had to take place on some sort of map; and as my everyday method of conveyance in the city was the subway, I got me a subway map and drew some co-ordinates on it that seemed vaguely heroic. The main character, me again, would travel out to a wild party in Brooklyn (Flatbush, if I remember correctly), make a pass at a woman he worked with, get drunk out of his mind, stagger back to the station, get on a Lexington Avenue Express, pass out on the train, awaken in the Bronx car yards in the middle of the night, head back to Manhattan, get breakfast at Veselka, a Ukrainian coffee shop, then make it to work on time -- hung-over but no worse for the wear.
To make the pilgrimage more Dantesque, I created a gigantic transit conductor to act as tour guide, and I made him sort of evil. I guess on some level he was supposed to be the Devil and the subway was supposed to be kind of a railway to Hell. Truthfully, this wasn’t the worst conceit I’d ever come up with -- those old subway cars threw up showers of sparks whenever the contacts skipped along the third rail, which was pitted and old, and the lights in those cars were so dicey -- those same gaps in the third rail caused numerous momentary blackouts with a strobe-light effect -- it was like riding in a rocking, beat-up disco -- a rocking, beat-up, fucking graffitied disco. Don’t forget, this was the era of Taki 182, pre-Keith Haring. Every surface area in every car was tagged -- tags over tags -- the windows, too.
I remember how I had this conductor, as large as Goya’s Colossus, shout over the intercom to watch the closing doors, while slamming them shut instantaneously on unwary passengers entering or leaving the train, almost chopping them in two. Sometimes I had him skip stations with no announcement, other times stop with the train only half in, so passengers exiting would tumble onto the tracks.
“Watch the closing doors!” he’d scream, snapping the doors back and forth, then:
“…and have a nice day!”
I coupled this notion with an even sillier one; the subway system as intestines. I mean, on a map they look like intestines -- and the trains, running through them with a sort of peristaltic motion, reminded me of giant turds humping their way to the anus -- which is a sort of terminal. Remember, I was going through a bad time -- that’s my only excuse for this nonsense. Anyway, once you start talking about turds at play, particularly Homeric turds in motion, you end up, inevitably, mentioning, or at least alluding to, Ben Jonson’s ’On the Famous Voyage,’ a long poem in which two wits row up the Fleet Street Ditch, an open sewer, commenting on all the shitting going on as they pass by. Actually, this piece of writing influenced my book greatly, as I saw parallels between it and the Odyssey, and Ulysses, as well. Toss in some Jonathan Swift, and a jigger full of sad Sam Beckett, and you pretty much have the ingredients of the stew I was simmering.
Speaking of shit, I did do a bunch of research on the subject for my novel. I built a small library of books on human offal: The Smallest Room by Pudney, Clean and Decent by Lawrence Wright, Cleanliness and Godliness - or The Further Metamorphosis - A Discussion of the Problems of Sanitation raised by Sir John Harington, together with Reflections upon Further Progress recorded since that Excellent Knight, by his Invention of the Metamorphosed Ajax, Father of Conveniences, revolutionised the System of Sanitation in this country etc. by Reginald Reynolds (Ajax comes from the word ‘jakes,’ British slang for outhouse). I also bought the Bantam paperback containing the MIT study for building better toilets -- it had diagrams of the splash patterns one created when pissing into old-fashioned urinals, and explained what could be done, design-wise, to keep those droplets off your shoes in the future. I also picked-up a tiny cloth-bound gift book on Thomas Crapper, the Englishman who gave his name to our daily dumps. I should point out that these books were, and are, far from being the worst books in anyone’s estimation -- many of them are worth a pretty penny today. But this detour into shit has just been another way of avoiding the crux of this matter -- the real reason why my book was so bad. My manuscript was evil not so much for what it was, as for what it did -- broke-up my first marriage -- flushed it right down the crapper.
The bookstore I was working in at the time was the Strand; a huge un-air-conditioned warehouse full of dusty old used books. Over the course of a year almost every book ever written turned up there. Widows sold them the libraries of their dead husbands, reviewers brought them their unread review copies, and junkies schlepped in with torn shopping bags full of stolen books ripped-off from Lower East Side tenements. The owner and his son bought ’em all. And they all had to be priced and shelved. I was one of the shelvers. This meant that I was one of the first employees allowed to go through the individual tomes looking for artifacts and minutiae -- letters, interesting bookmarks, ticket stubs, photographs, etc. I crammed all these found objects into my pockets and used them in my manuscript when I got home, treating the material both as building blocks and kismetic guides -- I still have scrapbooks filled with this stuff.
I also wrote copious notes for my book throughout the day; scribbled sentences on torn scraps of paper; inked messages on the palms of my hands. By this time, mid-’72, my wife and I were living in New Jersey -- exit ten on the turnpike. The commute back and forth to my lousy little bookstore job was daunting. It took an hour and a half each way -- that’s three hours of death subtracted daily from what was something less than the ideal life. Going to work wasn’t so bad, though it was way too early in the morning. Getting home was another story. To catch the 7:05 Suburban Transit bus to Edison I’d have to dash out of the store at closing time, 6:30 on the dot, jog up to the Union Square subway station, grab an ‘R’ or an ‘N’ train, walk through the cars from the last to the first to save some time, pushing through the rush hour crush, get out at 42nd Street, then run through the twisting maze of underground passageways that led to the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 8th Avenue. By the time I clambered onto the bus I was a sweaty nervous wreck. I’d sit there drenched, in my dirty t-shirt and jeans, among the well-dressed business commuters like a cancer cell among the healthy. Hell, because I was always the last person to get on, I’d almost always end-up on the engine-hump seat in the rear -- the hottest, most cramped spot on the bus. I would sit there writing furiously, in a vain attempt to make my life meaningful, transcribing the notes I’d made earlier at work, turning them into something usable.
The third part of this literary trifecta -- first part; collecting material at work, second; organizing it on the bus ride home -- began when I got back to the sleazy sub-division we called home: this was the typing part, trying to come up with a couple of pages, even a couple of paragraphs, of serviceable prose. The bus-stop where I got off was at a strip-mall parking lot near the two-storied box that contained our apartment. The mall had a Seven-Eleven, where I’d pick-up milk and soda and Nabisco peanut-crème patties, my favorite snack. I was gaining a lot of weight eating this junk, but things were so fucked up in other ways that this was only a minor irritant to my wife. When I got in the door she would have the tv on, and she’d usually be making cheese and macaroni for dinner. We’d eat while silently watching sit-coms -- we had nothing much to say to each other -- by this time she was fixated on a Bob Dylan look-alike she worked with. I figured this was normal enough. My parents didn‘t seem all that happy, but they were still together, so I assumed this was the way relationships were meant to be.
After dinner I’d sit down at the ancient blue portable typewriter that had gotten me through college. It was mostly plastic, with no heft, but I could bang the shit out of it. I used corrasable paper and, as I was constantly rewriting as I went along, my tiny, much-abused typer was filling with eraser shavings. While I whaled away on my book, my wife would continue to watch tv up through Johnny Carson, then brush her teeth and prepare for bed.
“Ronnie, it’s time to go to bed,” she’d say.
“Ok,” I’d say, “Just give me another minute. I got something going here.”
And let’s say I did have something going. For instance, there was one part of the subway trip when I wake-up in the Bronx train yard on a layover, drunk out of my mind, that got me off when I was writing it. I had this scene where rusted-out redbirds were being broken up for scrap -- something I’d actually seen a couple of years earlier. Crews of maintenance guys with blow torches were cutting large swathes of the cars apart and I swear they were throwing the pieces into the river. At least I think that’s what they were doing. In my book this diabolical set-piece was presided over by the monstrous conductor.
“Ronnie, this is your last chance. You’re really starting to piss me off!”
“Ok, ok,” I’d say. But one page would turn into two, if I was lucky, and maybe even three. Writing for me was so difficult then (it’s impossible now) that I couldn’t tear myself away from the typewriter. But each page pushed me further away from my wife. They were incremental distances, but they added-up -- each thickness of paper combining until miles of pulp separated us. There really was only one possible ending to all this, and, of course, that’s what happened; we separated and eventually divorced, leaving my book triumphant on the field of battle -- triumphant in all its resplendent badness.
That book, Grand Days, was absolutely unpublishable. I knew the author of The Warriors, Sol Yurick, through a mutual friend, and he was kind enough to send it to his editor, Joyce Johnson -- the same Joyce Johnson who wrote Minor Characters about her relationship with Jack Kerouac -- after it had been rejected by numerous agents, editors and slush-pile readers. She sent me a nice little note attached to the manuscript basically telling me and my unlovely writing to get lost. I can take a hint as well as the next guy, so I decided to kill my book. I mean, it wasn’t only the rejection slips that pushed me in this direction. By now, even a fellow as dense as myself realized how poorly I’d behaved in my marriage, and that I should have put more value on it than on my unintelligible excuse of a novel. So, to free myself from a host of bad memories and even worse decisions, I shoveled the pages down a storm grate in Manhattan after work on a rainy fall evening in 1975, hoping they’d somehow find their way to the Great Conductor’s lair. Larry McMurtry, in All of My Friends are Going to be Strangers, drowns his manuscript in the Rio Grande. A wonderful and perfect ending to that novel. But there is the possibility that his main character dies while doing this, so perhaps his book was worse than mine.
RON KOLM is a poet, editor, activist, and bookseller, based in New York City.
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