My freakish fixation

When am I not thinking about the Elephant Man? 

I’m not just talking about the shattering 1980 film by David Lynch (still one of my favorite movies — see my appreciation here). I also mean the actual, real-life Elephant Man, née Joseph Merrick, the hideously deformed young Brit who, with considerable luck and one doctor’s wayward compassion, went from the squalid, dehumanizing freak show circuit to become the toast of Victorian London before he died at age 28 in 1890.

Merrick has been on my mind since I was yay high. Call it odd, perverse or, well, freakish, but the creepy and offbeat have clutched me in their thrall since my youthful exposure to Universal Horror flicks, campfire myths like Bigfoot and the Moth Man, and the most enduring gift I received on my eighth birthday, the thick book “Very Special People: The Struggles, Loves, and Triumphs of Human Oddities” by Frederick Drimmer.  

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In the book, among the likes of Jo Jo the Dog-Faced Boy; Grace McDaniels the Mule-Faced Woman; the original Siamese twins; and Julia Pastrana, aka the Ugliest Woman in the World, was Merrick, perhaps the saddest story of them all. (Although Pastrana’s story is heartrending, bizarrely grotesque, and worth a look here.)

A speedy summary: In an unorthodox gesture of charity, Dr. Frederick Treves took in the incurable Merrick, who suffered from severe neurofibromatosis, at the Royal London Hospital, furnishing the sick, lost and abused sideshow veteran a dazzling new life of comfort, friends, celebrity visitors, room and board and more. Though his appearance still terrified the faint of heart, Merrick was embraced by mainstream society until his premature death. IMG_0581.JPG

(Merrick’s skeleton resides at the old Royal London Hospital, and a few years ago I visited hoping to see the bones. I was rebuffed, but I had the pleasure of the hospital’s special museum dedicated to Merrick’s life.) 

I know a lot about “The Terrible Elephant Man,” as he was billed on the road, not only from “Very Special People” and Lynch’s ravishing biopic, but from a slim paperback I bought in seventh grade, “The True History of the Elephant Man,” about which I wrote and presented a book report to my befuddled English class. 

What gets me about Merrick is his life story, one so rippled with tragedy and depravity, it curdles the soul as it breaks the heart. Living in a sooty black-and-white London of clanking, steaming machinery that ushered in the Industrial Revolution, Merrick’s old-timey milieu also enthralls (see the Lynch movie for a rattling immersion in time and place), and seems of a piece with his destitute, Dickensian plight. 

And the disease: The exotically gruesome, inconceivably savage affliction renders man into monster, whose corrupted flesh cannot conceal the gentle soul locked inside the twisted, tumored carapace.  

My fascination has become rather fanboy. (Elephant Man cosplay — I will have to pass.) Besides books about Merrick — including “Making ‘The Elephant Man’” by one of the film’s producers, which I just bought — I own the American, Turkish and Japanese posters of Lynch’s movie, as well as a coffee mug embossed with a period photo of Merrick looking dapper in a three-piece suit. 

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Around the time I got the making-of book, I ordered what I’ve wanted for a long time, a t-shirt of the “Elephant Man” movie. This one is a silkscreen of the film’s Japanese poster art, fusing my passion for all things Japanese with my strange Merrick mania. 

A tad zealous, perhaps. But consider that Michael Jackson famously tried to buy Merrick’s bones. He was flatly refused. I once thought that Jackson was overreaching, being the creepy eccentric he was.

Nowadays, not so much.

High school highs, and lows

High school was hell, but Eve Babitz makes me envious of those four ego-scarring years with her descriptions of life on campus at prestigious performing arts school Hollywood High, which is famed as much for its glitzy alumni as for its cameos in films like, uh, Jon Favreau’s “Made.” (Anyone?)

Babitz mentions her days/daze at Hollywood High School in “I Used to Be Charming,” a plump collection of essays and magazine articles by the cool, acerbic chronicler of LA’s kaleidoscopic contours which I happen to be reading. It’s the early 1960s and she “used to watch them, those guys in their maroon and white sweaters at Hollywood High, their handsome faces and their invincibility and the way they smiled and said Hi.”

Right, that sounds like many a teenage girl mooning over the jock block. But Hollywood High is different, a sort of Harvard of the arts, a Juilliard transplanted to the sunny, mountain-fringed SoCal coast. It’s where the likes of Judy Garland, Cher, Laurence Fishburne, Carol Burnett, Selena, Bruce Lee, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lana Turner, John Huston and a wad of other luminaries graduated from. 

For mere mortals, it makes you think: Well, crap.

My California high school was a miasma of mediocrity: Clorox-white, suburban, middle-class, filled with dullards and philistines and animated by cliquey teen clichés — jocks, stoners, nerds, punks, cheerleaders, et al. “The Breakfast Club” writ eye-rollingly real. 

This callow pimple-verse was of course dominated by the chest-thumping jocks, those entitled, vainglorious meatheads, who actually believed they were special and that anyone but them gave one goddam about a Friday night football game. In four years, I attended one pep rally. I’ve never been so mortified in my life.

I can’t imagine the boho Babitz — artist, writer, rock- and art-scene groupie — stooping to the synthetic glee of a pep rally. But who knows. She was a wild one, slurping up life’s rich cocktail, no matter how corny or queasy. Her eyes were wide open, and rimmed with an agreeable cynicism that gave her writing a feral pop.

51qpHkS8hyLThe trope goes that high school is misery for anyone who’s even partially cognizant. It’s political, hierarchical, mean, rife with crappy beer, unshackled lust and timorous gropes. It leaves burn marks.

Not so for Babitz. Beautiful and busty — “When I was fifteen years old, I bought and filled my first 36DD bra,” she writes — and talented to boot, Babitz cultivated hot style with her precocious female cronies, described as “preternatural high schoolers,” which groomed her for a young adulthood of exotic artsy adventures, including a famous dalliance with Jim Morrison. 

One observer writes:

“It’s very likely Eve Babitz’s high school experience bore little resemblance to her readers’, then or now. A graduate of Hollywood High, the LA-based writer and artist moved in a circle of young women who enjoyed the company of older men. They smoked with abandon, casually popped pills, made out with the boyfriends of famous actresses, and occasionally made it to class. Many of Babitz’s peers were achingly beautiful; more than a few became famous because of it.”

I had more fun in high school than I let on — a dash of Babitz’s decadence and a lot of standard teen tomfoolery, as well as the predictable sturm und drang (angst for the memories) and a streak of bleeding heartache. 

Despite my tight quartet of high school friends being creative, thoughtful and music-obsessed, we were no Algonquin Round Table, nothing as chic, daring and ambitious as Babitz’s band of pretty bright things. 

We felt we were treading water in a sea of douchebaggery, believing, as deluded teens will, that we had an edge on most of our classmates, that someday our low-key cool would be appreciated. We were most assuredly wrong. 

So, these many years later, I pine for richer high school days, ones more artistically rarefied and socially sophisticated; grittier, glammier, sexier and slambangier. Pathetic? So be it. If I’m viewing it all through a gauze of romanticism, turning the rearview mirror into a funhouse mirror, I blame Babitz, that bard of badassness, queen of cool and cynosure of sex appeal.

If only.

A day like any other, pretty much, kind of

Stuff that happened today, May 4: 

People reflected with distress and solemnity on the 50th anniversary of the Kent State massacre (war protesters, good; guns, bad). I ordered a pair of green shorts (yes, I said green). Dave Eggers, possibly my least favorite writer, penned a typically cutesy op-ed in The New York Times (vigorous head shake). Netflix announced that Nicolas Cage will play Joe Exotic from “Tiger King” in a new scripted series (pinch me). And the most spastically overrated novel of 2019 won the Pulitzer Prize (please, jurors, stop doing this). 

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Cage uncaged

What a day. But not really. Shit happens everyday, mostly minor and minuscule, a beige streak of the routine and quotidian, particularly these strange stay-at-home days. (I’m talking about ground-level life, of course, not the huge, horrible pandemic picture, whose enormity transcends the lines of this scrawny blog.) 

Today’s pedestrian episodes: I suffered continued undiagnosed abdominal issues (no, not the appendicitis, but perhaps more painful), the dog shat on the floor, a book of poetry I bought gravely disappointed, and the afternoon temperature dipped from 70 to 58 degrees over a couple hours, to my delight. I re-read an exceptional book of essays called “Off Ramp” that I recommend exuberantly. I exercised, mildly and miffed. I did the daily email boogie, writing and replying. I ate cucumber with hummus and sipped wine.

That was Monday, May 4, scrunched into a knotty ball. Not spectacular, not awful.

But lookie: The future holds quivering thrills.  

Tomorrow, May 5, is front-loaded with celebration: Cinco de Mayo, National Teacher Day and (oh, totally) National Hoagie Day. This motherlode of tippling tequila, a paean to pedagogues and bib-wearing sandwich snarfing is holiday-worthy. Where’s the confetti?

And yet the following day, May 6, pulls everything back into focus. Wednesday, according to the Fairy Godmother of special days, exalts National Tourist Appreciation Day — which reminds us: whoever’s a tourist on this day, in this moment, is a fool.

And, more poignantly, is National Nurses Day, which “provides recognition to nurses for their contributions and commitment to quality health care and brings awareness to the importance of nurses in the care, comfort and well-being of all of us.”

Now that’s a day worth honoring, one that’s not like other days, far outshining the banality of the white box on the calendar. And one that can kick your guts out, in the best, most inspiring way.

The smart, tart prose of Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore astonishes, still, her writing shiny, poetic and brainy, the best kind of literature. It’s massively, richly human, striking each note, from humor to horror and all in between. She’s a blistering deterrent for ever trying to commit fiction. If I can’t be that good, I don’t want to be anything — that’s my thinking. My stabs at fiction have been leaden, lame, laughable. 

I am re-reading Moore’s acclaimed story collection “Birds of America.” On its release in 1998, a writer friend and I were both reading the book, and I told him that her writing made me jealous, defeated. “Oh, not me,” he said. “It inspires me.” (That from the guy who was a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist in his early 20s.) 

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Today Moore’s ecstatic prose inspires me, too, provides oomph, a kick to my motivational motor, spurring me to tap the keys and say something, anything. That can be dangerous. If it’s any good, most writing is. (I know — that’s axiomatic.) 

What I mean is, I can write stuff so sloppy, witless and rancid that it’s actually toxic — it wounds and discourages. Then I can pick up a book by Moore or her peers (say, Alice Munro or Tobias Wolff) and be pacified by sheer beauty and slashing craft and get revved again at the possibilities — the old can of spinach. 

Moore’s written four story collections: “Self-Help,” “Birds of America,” “Bark” and the brand-new anthology “Collected Stories” from the prestigious Everyman’s Library Contemporary Classics. And three novels: “Anagrams,” “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” and “A Gate at the Stairs.”

I read the latter and liked it, but I don’t remember much about it. “Birds of America” is different. It’s stickier, droller, more dynamic, more prismatic. It’s spiky, empathic, bright and cynical. Though she’s no maximalist, less isn’t Moore: Her words contain worlds. (And her titles are often titillations: “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People”; “People Like That Are the Only People Here.”)

I forgot to mention the stories are also crackingly funny. Moore’s effortless humor, mostly of a mordant strain, ribbons through the dramas organically. She’s no stand-up comedian like novelist Gary Shteyngart, who’s forced and erratic. With sociological rigor, she locates the dark laughs baked in the everyday.

Lorrie-Moore.jpgShe is particularly good at the jolt-laugh of the unexpected:

“The next time Bill saw her, it was on her birthday, and she’d had three and a half whiskys. She exclaimed loudly about the beauty of the cake, and then, taking a deep breath, she dropped her head too close to the candles and set her hair spectacularly on fire.” 

And she’s bracing when she goes darkly wise:

“This is what he knows right now, with dinner winding up and midnight looming like a death gong: life’s embrace is quick and busy, and everywhere in it people are equally lacking and well-meaning and nuts.”

My next book purchase will be “Bark,” Moore’s 2014 story collection, which I find hard to believe I don’t already own. I’ve put it off, sure that it can’t touch the brilliance of “Birds,” that it’s a disappointment in waiting. But revisiting her masterpiece blots out doubt. How can it be weak or wan? It can’t, I say. It can’t.

Not much else to do but read (and read…)

Thanks to the collective corona cloistering, I’ve been ordering books online, greedily. With libraries and bookshops closed, I’m buying used books from third-party sellers on Amazon and new titles from New York indie institution McNally Jackson. 

Unquenchably, I’m ingesting words in the yawning vacuum of self-quarantine. Reading is nearly as nourishing as food. This is what’s on my literary plate. 

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I met “Birds of America” author Lorrie Moore at a book signing for that acclaimed 1998 story collection, and she wasn’t the most jolly person in the room. She was frosty to her gathered admirers, but I don’t hold that against her. Moore’s edge informs her tart, smart fiction, which is also infused with emotional immediacy and pocked with laughs. With stories like the award-winning “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” the book is a contemporary classic that hasn’t aged a whit. 

Death looms these grim days, though mortality is always on the mind of this moody Cassandra. Long ago I read the updated edition of “The American Way of Death,” Jessica Mitford’s definitive 1963 exposé of the funeral racket, and I’m back at it, if not for the dazzling reportage and head-shaking stats — upshot: funeral peddlers are exploitative swindlers — then for purely great writing that makes a dismal subject pop. The book is not only essential muckraking, but lavish literary satire, nipping at a venal industry with the toothy, pit bull wit of Pauline Kael. This tangy volume is one big reason I will be cremated and thrown to the wind.

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51VIRgJYGcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_While rereading books like the above, I’m also rewatching some favorite flicks, including “Casablanca,” the evergreen masterpiece in which every element of fine filmmaking miraculously falls into place. I love a good movie book so I clicked on Noah Isenberg’s “We’ll Always Have ‘Casablanca’: The Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie,” the gawky title of which tells you just what you’re delving into. I haven’t cracked it yet, but I’m hoping for historical Hollywood gold on par with the recent knockout “The Big Goodbye: ‘Chinatown’ and the Last Years of Hollywood.”  

Dreaming about Paris, I tripped upon the site for fabled English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Company, that grand, musty emporium on the Left Bank, where I scrolled staff recommendations for Paris-set stories. Never mind its racy cover, I was lured to Elaine Dundy’s cult comic classic “The Dud Avocado,” a romp tracing the libertine escapades of a comely young American woman in the French capital who yearns to exist out loud. Called a “timeless portrait of a woman hell-bent on living,” the novel seems unlikely to disappoint this thwarted traveler pining for Paris.  41efY3TglbL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_On the note of cult classics, “Airships,” Barry Hannah’s award-winning collection, promises “20 wildly original, exuberant, often hilarious stories that celebrate the universal peculiarities of the new American South.” The book hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s highly anticipated after being called “one of the most revered short story collections of the past 50 years, remaining a vital text in the history of the American short story.” And this snippet from it makes me sort of love it already: “What a bog and labyrinth the human essence is … We are all over-brained and over-emotioned.”

51hhyhVwywLRaymond Chandler’s crackling and complex detective noir “The Big Sleep” scorches with style. The novel, a total delight, introduces private eye Philip Marlowe, literature’s great existential antihero, a shrugging loner with a gun, cigarettes and devastating wit. Chandler crams it with so many ravishing lines, images, similes, he elevates pulp to high literature. Marlowe, all slow-burn aplomb, speaks and thinks like the consummate smart-aleck tough: “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners,” he grumbles. “They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.” Unknown.jpeg

“Death Comes for the Archbishop” is a western in priest’s clothing. Set in the mid-1800s, Willa Cather’s elegant epic about a gentle French bishop spreading Catholicism through Mexico and its southwest territories braids American history with lush spirituality and, at times, a mean Cormac McCarthy crunch. The title is a major spoiler, like Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” but Cather knew what she was doing, and the foregone conclusion hits hard — and beautifully. Her eloquence is breathtaking, and the glistening lyricism comes out of nowhere to stun. Here Cather describes two men running through the desert: “They coursed over the sand with the fleetness of young antelope, their bodies disappearing and reappearing among the sand dunes, like the shadows that eagles cast in their strong, unhurried flight.” 51qJIvsSX6L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

Reckless randomness in scary times

Like many of you, we are grumblingly housebound during the seismic spread of the coronavirus, aka the Trump Pandemic, a little scared, a lot curious, shuffling clenched and downcast in a novel world of social paralyzation and dystopian edicts, woozy with the surreal and unthinkable. Enter: takeout, Amazon, streaming movies, books we should have read eons ago, board games, bottomless web surfing, asphyxiating boredom, idle nose picking, staring contests, etc.

The end is nigh. 

Or not. 

Yes, bars, restaurants and even Starbucks are shuttering, and it’s a cataclysmic cluster-boink. I can’t even get a haircut now, so by July I’m going to look like Weird Al Yankovic.

But if you have the gall, guts and lunacy, there are ways out. Like zooming to far-off lands that may well be (yes, they will be) infected. Peek yearningly at PlanMoreTrips, a new site that promises, with a pinch of perversity, to “Find the Best Corona Virus Flight Deals,” like: a $137 roundtrip from New York to Lima, Peru; a $43 roundtrip from Dallas to Las Vegas; or a $231 roundtrip from New York to Barcelona.

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Lima, Peru

All of that makes me want to travel badly; I strain at my leash. But it’s a global crap-storm out there. I don’t want to go to Paris when the D’Orsay and the Louvre and Frenchie restaurant and my three favorite cinemas in the Latin Quarter are closed. (Though I still kinda really do.) And of course I don’t want to get ill or make anyone else sick. So we sit. We stew. We play Scrabble. Shit.

Now for some random, corona-free stuff (just what you were waiting for) … 

—  Cubby the hirsute hound finally got a haircut. In puppy parlance, he was groomed. While his body is shorn and tiny now, almost tubular, like a Pringles can, the Baron Munchausen beard and mustache remain, rather regally. And all that hair removal revealed something we always suspected was there, but never saw: a bright pink butthole. Sorry, but it’s true. And it’s strangely alarming, yet delightful too. He’s got one! He’s even less freakish than we thought! Good boy.  

  Spring dispirits for many reasons. Besides sunshine and heat and bugs and pollen, and everybody chirping about such delirious wonderfulness (they’re all wack), there are insane allergies some of us contend with. Actually, I combat them daily, through all climes, so I can’t blame the new season, as much as I detest it. (Did I mention swimming pools, barbecues and shorts?) Thing is, my allergy meds barely work, if at all. Runny nose, watery eyes are my main symptoms, and they could not vex me more. I’ve tried an array of meds. This week I’m moving on to Flonase. Can anyone vouch for this pricey nasal spray? (Gross, right?) 

  Timely thought: “Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely.” — Sam Harris, author of “The End of Faith”

—  Serious film fans know Werner Herzog — prolific auteur of mind-tweaking features (“Fitzcarraldo,” “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”) and consciousness-rattling documentaries (“Grizzly Man,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”) — as a brilliant iconoclast, Germanic chaser of “ecstatic truth,” and venerated pop culture polymath (he’s voiced himself on “The Simpsons” and plays a villain in the “Star Wars” series “The Mandalorian”). This week, he’s interviewed in a New York Times Magazine Q&A under the unsurprisingly prickly headline “Werner Herzog has never thought a dog was cute.”It’s typically profound and brain-expanding. “How do we give meaning to our lives?” Herzog says. “That question has been lingering over my work and life. That’s what I’ve been pursuing for a very long time.” And from there, he’s off.29mag-talk-jumbo

—  The other day, Yahoo!, the oddly antiquated web server, rapped my knuckles with a stern warning to be a nice boy. An admonitory email landed in my rarely used Yahoo! mailbox, part of which reads: 

“It has come to our attention that you may have violated the terms of service on Yahoo! Please reread the terms and cease any use of your account that may violate them. If your use of your account is brought to our attention again, we may terminate it without further notice.” 

I’m shaking in my sneakers, big bad Yahoo! (Thank you for providing the exclamation point I otherwise would have furnished in that sentence.) My crime: replying to a couple of comments on a Trumpian news story on the site, which unaccountably attracts a large, semi-literate, far-right readership. The comments, dumb as dirt, borderline racist, the usual vile cant, set off my volcanically anti-Trump triggers and, helplessly, I typed some half-baked responses, teeth grit, smoke poofing from orifices.

Perhaps stooping to the commenters’ level, I called them ignorant hillbillies who should skitter back down the holes they crawled out of — or some such balderdash of which I am not proud. I used no curse words (wait, isn’t “hillbilly” an expletive?) and hardly drew outside the lines. Yahoo! is having none of it. I broke the rules. I upset some Neanderthals and a corporate legal department. To the corner I go. Such a bunch of … yahoos.

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