Dateline: October 29, 1987 – Olympia, Washington
From Ecclesiastes, Chapter One
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full.
Morrisey’s booming, square-jawed voice bathed the interior of my girlfriend’s car in melancholy and cynicism…
Girlfriend in a coma, I know, I know
Girlfriend in a coma, I know, I know
It’s really serious
There were times when I could Have ‘murdered’
(But, you know, I would hate anything to happen to her)
NO, I DON’T WANT TO SEE HER!
I had had enough of this shit. She’d played and replayed this tape, The Smiths, Strange Ways, Here We Come, over and over for the past week. I’d had it. “Jesus, what the fuck is this guy’s problem, anyway?” I said. “Make a friend, for chrissakes.”
“Shutup!” she snapped. “I love Morrisey!”
Of course you do, I thought.
My girlfriend should have been everything I hated, everything that I stood against:
- Easy answers
- The Instant-Punk® ethos—Just add attitude and leather jacket!
- The level of conformity that only non-conformists like the nuvo punks of the 1980s could aspire to
But goddamnit if she didn’t have the one thing that got me right where I lived, the one thing that knew the combination to my Achilles’ heel: talent.
My girlfriend was an artist. She painted, she drew, she sculpted. Beauty itself poured from her hands. She was badass. I know—I had just enough artistic ability myself to know shit from shinola and she was the shit. She was the real deal.
But she was a poseur.
She spouted aggressive leftist political manifestos with gusto and real passion—she reminded me of a modern Celia Sánchez or even Tamara Bunke. But I knew that if push came to shove, if she were asked to put her boots to the pavement, to leave her cushy digs compensated by her parents’ money, to give up her like-new car, if she were to have to give up the accoutrements of the comfortable upper middle class life that the very system she railed against provided… well, let’s just say the first things to go would be Stooges records and the anarchist patches on her jacket. She was, to put it mildly, pretty full of shit. But the talent, man… it was the talent that got me. Every time.
We were in her car heading home from school. I was in my first semester of community college—where I had met her in a film studies class. I noticed her straight away the first day—a Eurasian girl who reminded me of the girl in David Bowie’s “China Girl” music video. She wore beat-up Doc Martens and an old Iggy Pop t-shirt. I finally manoeuvred to sit next to her during a screening of the documentary Harlan County, U.S.A.. In the dark there, we would accidentally bump into each other, slowly moving the chairs until, finally, they couldn’t be moved any closer. After the screening, we went to the cafeteria and talked about David Bowie (she did) and T.Rex (I did). She happened to have a small portfolio of drawings with her, for her art class in the afternoon. She showed them to me.
I was dumbstruck.
It was all over but the shouting.
“Did you find a book for Ballard’s class?” she asked as we ambled slowly through afternoon traffic. We were going to hang out for a while at the Smithfield, a coffee shop in downtown Olympia that catered to the punks, skins, and mods of our small town.
Ms. Ballard. English 101. She was vocally leftist, constantly talking about the inevitable ‘revolution’ that was going to come and mow down the establishment. She would begin a lecture on, say, a Robert Frost poem, but would inevitably segue from roads not taken into how the bourgeoisie would be crushed under the boots of the newly liberated underclass as they marched down that road. Reagan, the Iran-Contra affair, Chernobyl—these were all signs that our world was collapsing, according to her. The only thing that would save you, she would intone, was knowledge—and a strong affiliation with armed guerrillas. Our assignment for Tina Trotsky, as I had dubbed her, was to find a novel by a ‘lost generation’ author and present an analysis that placed the book and the author’s writing of it in historical, political, and social context. A glorified book report, in other words.
“Yeah, I found something. Went to the bookstore by my house, next door to the Laundromat,” I said. “Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises.”
“I see,” she said, nodding slyly. Then after a few moments, with Morissey droning on in the background, added, “Interesting choice.”
Interesting choice? You see? You see what? I wondered.
“Well, anyway. I’ve never read him,” I said and immediately felt like I was just digging my hole deeper somehow—Was I stupid for having not read him already? Was Hemingway bad? Good? It felt like I had just exposed myself as a fraud. I had been feeling pretty good about myself lately, reading Nabokov, starting, predictably, with Lolita, then moving on to Pnin, which I had just finished. My interest in Nabokov was piqued by watching Stanley Kubrick’s movie version of Lolita with her—one of the many movies she turned me on to—and also due to a throwaway lyric in The Police’s hit, Don’t Stand So Close To Me…
It’s no use, he sees her
He starts to shake and cough
Just like the old man in
That book by Nabokov
“Let’s just say he had an interesting perspective on things,” she said, cautiously.
“Like what?” I asked, defensively. “What things?”
“Women, mostly,” she said.
“Oh,” I said and left it that—I knew better than to wade into these waters.
The thing is, I might not have had read Hemingway yet, but I wasn’t stupid, and I hadn’t lived under an intellectual rock. I was aware of his proclivities: boxing, drinking heavily, attending bullfights, flirting with death in all manner of ways. And, of course, the womanizing. There was that.
I was living, at the time, in a friend’s absolutely gigantic and empty house. He was selling it and needed someone to be there to keep an eye on it until it sold, to make sure no one broke in and also to keep enough heat on in the place to keep the winter cold from doing any damage. It was free rent and was conveniently located near the community college and the music store where I taught music. The enormity of the empty house made me feel like Jack Torrance, the writer-turned-caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining. I only had a few of my belongings there, a bed, a stereo, a guitar, a kerosene heater that I moved around the house, depending on where I was spending any time. It was fall and, while it wasn’t terribly cold, it was rainy and the dampness seemed to make everything feel much colder than it was. That kerosene heater was my shadow.
I took the book, sat down next to the heater and put the first side of Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony (symphony #41 in C major) on the turntable. I began reading.
I found it instantly mesmerizing. The prose was sharp, tight. To the point. And imbedded between those simple, long run-on sentences, those short, punchy, statements, was a melancholy, a deep pain of the kind that I had assumed—correctly, the years would bear out—was uniquely masculine. Hemingway seemed to be saying, between those words, those sentences, that men felt pain, loss, in a particular way—and this was it. I genuinely began to feel badly for Jake Barnes and this went well beyond any sympathies for his war injury. And I worried. Was Jake, a man much older than me, a harbinger of things to come? Would I, too, well into adulthood, still be trying to shake myself free of ghosts, still trying to figure things out? Even at that age? Would I have my own Lady Brett Ashley? (I would.)
Later, I put the book down and went to the kitchen for a beer and some time in front of the TV—it was past midnight and Late Night With David Letterman was on. The iconic theme music started and the unmistakeable voice of Bill Wendell announced “From New York, home of the world champion Chicago Bears, it’s Late Night With Letterman…” I watched as Letterman did his hilarious ‘Questions from the Audience’ segment and then, later, a satirical sketch called The Reagan Diaries. But I couldn’t concentrate.
I remembered my girlfriend’s reaction to my book choice and reflected on what I had read. I was only a few chapters into the book, sure, but, even to my unsophisticated eyes, Hemingway’s use of the women characters in the novel seemed to be purely as devices to move the plot—meaning Jake’s story—forward. Sure, one could argue that that’s all that any secondary character is for, but they seemed to be merely static two-dimensional foils for the men in the story, sources of grief, primarily, mere obstacles and/or cautionary markers along the men’s more important, more relevant emotional journeys.
In spite of my altruistic observations, in the end, I felt guilty—for identifying with Jake, for feeling as if Hemingway, somehow, ‘got’ me. Was it possible, I wondered, to sympathize with the main character, to share his—and, presumably, Hemingway’s—man-first point of view and not see yourself as, well, something of an asshole? I didn’t know. I just knew that what Jake felt sounded like what I felt.
It’s been thirty years—thirty!—since I read The Sun Also Rises for the first time. My first Hemingway. Since then, of course, I’ve read nearly everything the man has written, novels, war correspondence, short stories—you name it. (Hey, not bragging; I’m an English Literature teacher and a writer, that’s all.) I even put up a small theatre production (as part of a larger presentation) of A Clean Well-Lighted Place in New York City. If you’re really in the mood for a wallop, read Hills Like White Elephants. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Did Jake Barnes prove to be foreshadowing for my adult life, my life after my war(s)?
I’ll leave you with the last lines of The Sun Also Rises.
“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Isn’t it pretty to think so?
If that line doesn’t just hand you your ass, nothing will.