The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2012

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FEB 2012 Issue

A fragment from Isolate Flecks: An Anatomy

I shouldn’t be writing this. I’m supposed to be writing my dissertation about gangs and warfare in Medellín, Colombia, or at least pretending to.

Could be time to give up that ghost. Not that anyone cares. Or believes I’m going to finish. But I pay the maintenance and matriculation fees, conduct periodic meetings with my adviser, in which I give him my outpourings, such as they are, and otherwise go about my business, which we’ll get to forthwith. No closer to finishing than when I started.

Stand forewarned: this little excursus may turn out to be similar. It may lead everywhere and nowhere.

I need to rectify my name. It isn’t my real name, of course, but one some no-talent hack made up, and with which I’ve become associated. “Richard Melville,” for Christ’s sake.

I’ll use it in what follows for the purposes of narrative clarity.

Vicious slander, parasitic accounts of mis andanzas, which, undoubtedly, is why you’re reading this—the other two novels, discussed on the Opera Channel, about alleged exploits in tropical locales, with short brown men in possession of weapons, drugs, SUVs.

Action-adventure. Sex-sex-sex.

Invented, I’m guessing, for the sake of vicarious existence, fame, and pecuniary gain. People will buy anything these days, especially delusions, which is the problem … or was, until they stopped buying, but kept deluding themselves.

Vanishing Acts. As if I had simply disappeared into the bush. What century do they think this is?

My problem is that people we know, my wife and I, recognize this character, since these books have made what publicity types call “a splash” (maybe they say “buzz”). The author, who’s not worth mentioning, is now in the same league with Dermot Trellis, or almost.

A trap, Foucault called it.

I can’t have everyone falling into it, though if you didn’t read that garbage, you needn’t read this, since you don’t live with the illusion that you know me. Plus this might turn out to be garbage, too.

Admittedly an odd reason for writing—not to mention the dissertation, to which we’ll return—but I’m going to dispel those rumors once and for all. Lay them to rest. Bury them six feet under. Establish the facts of what happened, since that’s what’s at issue. Although I won’t respond, except tangentially, to that crude caricature of me with which you’re presumably familiar.

The idea is that I’m above that. It’s beneath me.

I’ll let the dead bury the dead, because I want to tell you about the place I’ve come to think of as my own little homeland. Very hip … until flood, famine, and drought came. Just kidding about the last two. This isn’t really about Brooklyn, although that is indeed an interesting subject. Someone should write a book, only the dead and so on.

But our story happens here. And setting is important.

Characters are the thing, though. So this will be about real people: my wife, family, friends, arts and culture people, and yes, my former business associates. I want to give you a radiografía of the scene we inhabit: painters, sculptors, musicians, critics, conceptualists, art dealers, drug dealers, buyers of drugs and art, writers, editors, agents, critics, music producers, assorted do-gooders, the foundation people, rich liberals, rich assholes (difference being that liberals try to be decent), and giants among us, like Lincoln Gom.

I’ll try to keep my son out of it, since he’s just a kid, and therefore doesn’t deserve any of this.

Then again, none of us do.

A pastoral metaphor: we’re dewsilky cattle. Heading into slaughter, separately, slowly, eating grass in pastures, lying down, content in our own shit.

No, that doesn’t work: we’re making glittery surfaces that pass for lives, but the smell. Not of excrement, nor even filthy lucre, but something acrid like burnt plastic. These stories—connected by what I don’t know, but trust you to find out—are about losing when you win. They have to be about winners of some kind. Gringos don’t celebrate losers in song, as they do in Mexico or Colombia.

Unless we include country and Western.

Your average gringo likes a loser who becomes a winner, or dies trying. Better yet, someone who’s born a winner. You wouldn’t read this if it was about losers (incidentally, that’s the problem with my dissertation: it’s about losers, and dead ones at that). Nelson Algren said there’s no way of being a creative writer in America without being a loser.

And the winners who lose? “Does the rat race claim their souls?” you may ask, but it’s a mindless question, since one cannot lose what one does not have. (I confess up front: I hate the rich, especially now that I am among them. They run out of ice at parties.)

What do winners lose, then? What do they have to lose, if not wealth, status, and property, which they hang onto? Perhaps their manicured selves, which become progressively dispersed into the objects they possess, children and careers included, as time goes by, so to speak?

We’ll find out.

That’s what this is about.

Of course we’ll have occasion, as they say, to run across bona fide losers, too. Misfits, deadbeats, fuckups, and jackasses. Whom it is better to kick around than feel sorry for … and what other options are there nowadays? They’ll be strictly comic relief. Nothing redeeming about them. I won’t make their failure noble. If I did, you might stop caring about what happens to these winners who lose (metaphorically speaking, of course: they still have jobs, houses, massive coverage, and good teeth).

They’re the ones that grab me.

They’re above me. I’m beneath them.

So’s my wife, Carm, who comes from sturdy Colombian peasant stock and so forth. No, really. She’s better than all of us at this business. I lie more than most, true; am a bigger fraud than my friends, who are acting rather than pretending; but my wife has real gifts. She became someone else. None of what she says about our past is true, except for the occasional glance or brush, but she lies so charmingly, so plausibly … says exactly what they want to hear.

Omar wants to marry her when he grows up.

I’ll try to keep him out of this, though.

No one keeps up with the Joneses like Carmenza Cardona Londoño—Mrs. Carmen Melville—whom you know as “María Isabel.” Initially, after we started our new life, I thought she was overcompensating for her past, but I realized art in bourgeois Brooklyn thrilled her.

More exciting than endless war in her hellhole country.

More novelty and less cruelty, at least on the surface.

The game easier to play. More upbeat.

Plus, who doesn’t like art?   

I’m glad she’s found her calling, since otherwise I would never have fully gone legit, come in from the cold, etc.

To this—lush life.

Park Slope? Cobble Hill? Prospect Heights? Boerum Hill? Carroll Gardens? Clinton Hill? Park Slope? Ft. Greene? Greenpoint? I won’t tell. Keep you guessing. My privacy and so on. 

Like higher education in general, anthropology’s a bust, and the real estate market has cooled considerably, as they say in the business press, so I need a calling. To keep up with Carm. It never ends with her, first the openings in Williamsburg, then Chelsea, now the Lower East Side. Part of a clique of hip women in their 30s and 40s, sleek super-moms with a taste—a vocation if you will—for controlling the lives of others. Hence their children.

They all smell like money, except nicer.

Carm fits in. Luckily, through this band my friend Darío founded—he went back to Bogotá, they’re still gigging around, though, cashing in on his name—I remember when they still practiced in our apartment in El Barrio, always bumming cigarettes … anyway, she met a pack of rich and semi-famous arty kids in their 20s from Bogotá.

Like gauchos, they make outstanding scene-makers and hangers on. Latin American art is big these days.

Colombia is not the country to be from if you live in Brooklyn, though. Try telling someone you’re from Medellín, Colombia, and watch their faces go blank. “Oh.” Or with luck: “Oh yeah, that’s where they killed that soccer player, right? Pablo Escobar? No, he was was the other ...”

Better Ecuador or Bolivia, where there are so many indigenous people, with these like really authentic cultures, you know?

Idiots. I should start an Andean-Amazonian travel agency for people like that, of whom there are plenty in my neighborhood and borough. My former associates would love the idea, except that we’re out of tourism. They’re doing eco-reserves and national park concessions now. High-level lobbying. Keep the Amazon green. Keep the white moving through it.

Europeans—who buy lots of art and snort lots of coke, here and there—are no better. Maybe a little.

Camarada Carmenza, née María Isabel, is another story. You know her, sort of. Ramboish stunts of revolution, right? Workers, peasants, and students, unite and fight! As if that was ever a possibility in Colombia. Much less now.

Better this than that, certainly. People have no idea who they’re dealing with. With whom they’re dealing. Not even the real money gringo types—liberals and assholes—who buy the art she sells.

I do real estate deals.

Or did.

Flipped buildings from industrial to residential in East Williamsburg and Bushwick. Then diversified our portfolio before it went down. My former Colombian business associates. You know them. Or think you do. They’re still Colombian, we’re no longer in business. Unlike the idiots who thought the sky would never fall, once I explained to them how it worked, my guys knew it would. They understand Ponzi schemes, are fond of them, but they say that una cosa es una cosa y otra cosa es otra cosa.

They have another saying: only cocaine lasts forever. The rest follows the laws of gravity.

The trick? Don’t get greedy. My guys are weak in that respect. They love money more than their mothers, and their mothers are the only women they love. But I saved them. Thanks to Lincoln Gom.

Of course, my guys gave Carm her start in the art business. Most of our set—the people you’re about to meet, the winners who lose themselves and each other—wouldn’t think to ask where our money comes from. My surname eliminates questions. No one thinks it’s unusual for me to have money. As if New England WASPs ruled anything beyond their own declining patrimony. If anyone were so vulgar as to ask, Carm would make up an artful lie, probably about the origins of my family fortune in the 17th century.

End of story.

Since I’m no longer needed, I’ve decided to write about it. That way I’ll blend in. No one will think of me as what I have become.

People here know me as Carm’s husband, whom she met in Colombia, and who’s doing a Ph.D. at Columbia. N.Y.U. CUNY.

Working on my thesis, they say.

On becoming a writer. A weaver of the wind. Windchime and warpwoof. Warpwolf.

Anyone can play that game. Not that anyone can write well, but try telling it to idiots here. Everyone thinks he or she can write, make movies or music, take pictures, paint, design, sculpt, act, direct, model. No one knows the difference between Morton Feldman and Stephen Sondheim.

Or Morton Feldman and Milton Friedman.

No one knows that the void awaits surely all them that weave the wind.

“Self-expression is not a crime,” reads a piece of graffiti in East Williamsburg. Maybe it should be. Not everyone can play tenor like Dexter Gordon or Gene Ammons. Realistically, how many Bud Powells can there be … ever?  

Now, anyone can pretend to be a writer and as long as he or she has an agent, publishes somewhere, and lives in one of the right neighborhoods, everyone will believe he or she is a writer.

A successful writer. What matters.

No one reads anymore, or so they say.

Not how academia works. You have to become one of them, go through their initiation rites, and then they read each other to the exclusion of all else, which is one reason they write indigestible prose; an intensely tribal environment. Though of course they would only use “tribal” in quotation marks now, i.e. don’t label the natives like that. Europeans invented “tribes” in order to expand their empires.

But what if we’re the natives? What if they’re us. Or we’re them.

You want to know about academics? I didn’t think so. Why would you? They’ll bore you to death. That’s what they’re paid for. A tribe of boring people who do shuck-and-jive dances of the mouth, usually wearing the worst clothes. Read third-rate fiction. Eat their young for fun.

The surface of group life is placid, but underneath the waters are turbulent, muddy. Fierce competition for scarce resources, especially the coin of the realm, what they call “prestige.” Nothing moves but the lower mandible.

Field notes.

I’ll give you 100 Clifford Geertzes for Ed Blackwell, plus another hundred Giorgio Agambens. For Mingus or Sonny Rollins, you get them all. All the famous academic intellectuals who ever existed. Can’t trade for Ellington, Basie, or the Fletcher Henderson Band, though. You’d need to throw in the painters and filmmakers with academics. Whole creative class.

My former business associates are more interesting than academics or artists. I’m talking about the winner-loser types like Dermot Trellis, not real ones like Reznikoff or Zukovsky. Or Monk Mulligan, Malachi Moore, and McClintick Sphere. Truth being an odd number.

I don’t trade poets for academics or artists, only other poets or musicians. Robert Duncan for Joe Henderson. H.D. for Percy Heath.

Back to my former associates, though. Buccaneers who became the law of their land by flouting the law of ours. Swarthy, ribald, and savage Latin people—more interesting than the others, but alas, more dangerous as well. Much like our neighbors in Brooklyn, the Italians. You’ll understand my reluctance to go into detail. Plus plenty of their numbers—the Colombians, not the Italians—sit in cells in the counties of Kings and Queens. Eastern District. Extradition’s a bitch, especially for men named Tuso or Gordo Lindo. My guys—basically Lucho—kept their center of gravity in the Amazon, left Colombia to their associates. Some of whom now live nearby.

I can tell you a bit about how our thing worked, since that’s over and done with, or my part of it is. And they gave me permission, under certain conditions.

In due time. I’m warming up.

My new vocation.

This should really be about Carm, though, since it’s through her that we get to the others, except the losers, who go through me. But they’re tangential. Let’s keep the focus on Carm. She’ll be the sun in my solar system, the earth to my moon. I’ll orbit around her.

Or maybe not. 


Forrest Hylton

FORREST HYLTON is an Associate Professor of History at the Universidad de los Andes, and the author of a bi-lingual novel, Vanishing Acts: A Tragedy, along with several books on Latin American history and politics. Beginning in September 2012, he will be a post-doctoral fellow at NYU's Tamiment Library, where he will be completing research for a book entitled 'Doing the Right Thing': Labor, Democracy, and Organized Crime on the Brooklyn Waterfront During the Cold War.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2012

All Issues