Notes on the Lew Griffin Novels
This page shares the reactions of a single reader as he made his way through these thought-provoking, entertaining, allusive texts. In annotated form, they offer brief summaries of Lew's actions and his interaction with others, as well as comment on other areas of interest and plot points. Initial notes are followed by a brief rumination on the allusion to blues in the novels, which in turn is followed by a selection of themed quotes from the books. This page was last updated in Fall 2001 and includes no comment on the most recent and, sadly, last Griffin novel, Ghost of a Flea.
THE LONG-LEGGED FLY (1992)
Main characters: Lew Griffin (all periods); LaVerne Adams (1964; 1970; 1984 – now married); Don Walsh (all periods; Sgt. – Lt.); Vicky Herrington (1984; 1990).
Other characters: Lew's parents (1964); "Blackie"/Abdullah Abded/William Sansom (1964, 1984); "Café au Lait" (1964); Corene Davis/Blanche (1964; mentioned 1984); Milt, a photographic specialist (1964, 1970); Long John, a pimp (1964); Thomas and Martha Clayson (1970); Cordelia Clayson (1970); Sgt. Polanski and Sgt. Verrick, Vice (1970); Bud Sanders , film teacher and pornographer (1970); Dr. Ropollo, academic and theatre expert (1970) – a Tony Roppolo (2 P's, 1 L) is mentioned in Moth and Black Hornet is dedicated to Joe Roppolo; Bill Collins, film expert (1970); Francy, Lew's sister (mentioned in 1970 section, 50); Donna, nurse (1984); Thibodeaux (1984; mentioned on page 97); Maria , Don's wife (1984; mentioned on page 97); Jimmi Smith (1984); Cherie Smith (1984; 1990); Bill and Johnny, cops (1984); Carlos, shares room with LG and Jimmi (1984); LuAnneand her uncle (1984); Kirk Woodland (1984); Mr. Baker and Denny (1984); Manny, boss at loan company for whom Lew does collection work (1984); Janie, Lew's former wife (1990; first mention in 1964 section, 45; a reunion-gone-bad alluded to in 1984 section, 96); David, Lew's son (1990); Alison Porter, friend of David (1990); Mr. Jones , David's landlord (1990); Dooley, an NY detective who was in the service with LG (1990); Jack Palangian, university colleague mentioned (1990).
Main characters: Lew Griffin; Don Walsh (Lt.); LaVerne Adams remembered; Alouette Guidry, LaVerne's daughter from her first marriage; Richard (Juan) Garces , former work colleague of Alouette's and a new friend of LG; Clare Fellman, university colleague and love interest.
Other characters: Baby Girl McTell (dies page 118); Vicky remembered; Teresa Hunt (McKinney), nurse; Chip Landrieu, Verne's 2nd husband; Achille (A. C.) Boudleaux, P.I. based in Metairie and an old acquaintance of Lew's; Josie, Don's wife (mentioned several times); Tony Roppolo, university colleague (a Dr. Ropollo appeared briefly in 1970 section of Fly; Black Hornet is dedicated to a Joe Roppolo); Sheryl Silva, friend of Clare's; T.C., Sheryl's ex-boyfriend and drug dealer; Banghead Terence, LG informant in bar scene with T.C. and himself a Vietnam vet; Roach/Robert McTell, Alouette's former lover and father of baby girl; Norm Marcus, Lew's neighbour and a taxi driver; Raymond Marcus, Norm's son; Lew's father remembered; 2 Mississippi cops who pull LG over with a message from Don; Jimmi(e) Smith remembered; Mrs. Adams, LaVerne's mother; Sgt. Travis, Clarksville PD; Camaro, Clarksville drug dealer; Kristi Scarborough, nurse; Silky/Clutch and Dwarf/Lonnie, Clarksville drug dealers; Beth Ann, Teresa's friend (and lover?; page 121); Mr. Warrant, Bobby Ray, etc. , West Memphis drug dealers; Francy, Lew's sister (mentioned on page 132); Quartet of West Memphis cops; Mickey Francis, hospital social worker; Jane, on hospital ward desk; Robert, university student who committed suicide remembered; Horace Guidry, Verne's 1st doctor husband; Mr. Eason, Haircut, and one other, Guidry's lawyers; Memphis hospital administrator ; Jack Palangian, university colleague mentioned; Miss Mara, one of Lew's students; Dean Treadwell; his wife Laura is also mentioned; Marcus Treadwell; Doo-Wop (186-88); Newman from Missoula, Montana, Doo-Wop's current interlocutor (possible nod to James Lee Burke or James Crumley?); Carlos Salas/The Greek, Puerto Rican bar owner; Tito, The Greek's cousin; Dr. Kowalski.
BLACK HORNET (1994)
Main characters: Lew Griffin; Don Walsh (note in Fly they already were friends in the 1964 section; here they encounter one another for the first time towards the end of the 1960s, with LG saving Don's life, 58; Don's brother, a bus driver, was one of the sniper's victims, 65); LaVerne Adams; Hosie (Arthur) Straughter, journalist, Pulitzer winner, and founder of the weekly The Griot (note how their encounter, after the death of a woman they both know, echoes Lew's first encounter with Chip Landrieu in Moth); Papa, ex-military, mercenary (47-49, 157-64); Carl Joseph , the rooftop sniper (dies, 168).
Other characters: Robert, military colleague; Terence Gully, first rooftop sniper Based on the real-life case of Mark Essex, and African American who opened fire on any white people from the roof of a hotel); Sloe Eddie; Buster Robinson, blues musician; Frankie DeNoux, operator of Boudleaux & Associates; Councilman Fontenot; Cornell, threatens Buster about his relationship with Ellie; Esmé Dupuy, journalist and sniper's victim; Cops who grill LG after Esmé's death; Little Sister , hooker (name is a possible nod to Chandler?); Doo-Wop (47, 79-84, 117, 156-57); Two thieves who try to steal Lew's car; St. John, Verne's neighbour; Jamil Xtian, Yoruba's minister of defense (Yoruba background on pages 81-82); Leo Tate/Blackie and Clifford/Café au lait (members of The Black Hand); Ex-con baker who comes to Lew's house with story about Julio and his story about 'The Sentry' (115-20); Mr. Bergeron, personnel at the security firm, SeCure Corps; Sam Brown, Lew's immediate boss at SeCure Corps; Corene Davis; James, colleague at SeCure Corps; Titus Kyle, Corene Davis's would-be assassin; Bonnie Bitler, executive vice president of SeCure Corps (firm started by her husband Ephraim) – on pages 176-78. She is also the mother of sniper, Carl Joseph; Elroy Weaver, Black Adder leader (148-49); Francy, Lew's sister (mentioned on page 149); Janie, Lew's former wife mentioned (149-150); Louis Creech, SeCure Corps colleague.
EYE OF THE CRICKET (1997)
Main characters: Lew Griffin; Don Walsh; Richard Garces; David Griffin, Lew's missing son; DeborahO'Neil, florist, playwright, and Lew's latest love interest; Zeke/Exekiel, recently released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where he edited the prison newspaper, and also managed to get material published by Hosie Straughter in The Griot, having been introduced by Lew with whom he has corresponded since the publication of Mole (about a convict released from Angola and his struggles in the outside world).
Other characters: Craig Parker, medical student at University Hospital; John Doe/Lew Griffin2 (29-33, 41-42, 62-63, 75-76, 86-87, 172-79; on page 174 we learn his real name is Robert Lee); Eugene , Garces's lover; Norm Marcus, taxi driver and neighbour; Raymond Marcus, Norm's son; Cal Marcus, Norm's wife; Mrs Sally Mara, one of Lew's students (she was Miss Mara in Moth ); Kyle Skillman, another of Lew's Students; Sam Delany, university student who asks Lew to look for his brother (note the name echoes that of African-American science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, about whom Jim Sallis has written and edited the essay collection Ash of Stars ); Shon Delany, missing 15-year-old half-brother; Rachel Lee Baldwin, Shon's mother; Danny, Don's son (back history: 25-26; death: 136); Dr. Bailey, looking after LG # 2; Clare Fellman, Lew's former friend and lover remembered (46-47); Janet and Gene Prue, Lew's neighbours; Kendall Gibbs, donut shop owner; Keith LeRoy, donut shop assistant manager (first appeared, but not named, on page16); Armantine Rauch/Army, Shon's half-brother (whom he refers to as his cousin); Lew's parents remembered; Francy, Lew's sister (mentioned on pages 61 and 152); Dean Treadwell; Dap/Daryl Anthony Payne (his corpse), a model; Dr. Lola Park, Richard Garce's former wife; Hosie remembered; LaVerne remembered; Vicky remembered; Clare remembered; Jimmi and Cherie Smith remembered; Carl Joseph and his mother remembered; Doo-Wop (96-99); Papa/Bill (99-104); Wayne, racist in Tommy T's Tavern; Jack, bar owner; Bobby, a friend of Don's son, Danny; Frankie DeNoux remembered; Janie, Lew's former wife mentioned (127); DeSalle, cop working with Don; Martinez, the cop who was first on the scene of Danny's death; Dr. Sonja Bijur, police pathologist; "Gentlemen's Club" of elderly black men, plus other street people Lew encounters: Ulysses, Sweet William/Bad Boy Bill, James Lee/Professor, Sheldon, Sam the barber, Eugene, Simple Suzie, Ed the Alzheimer's sufferer (157-58; 168-70); Bunkmate at the mission (165-67); Nigel, the homeless Robert Lee's British friend, remembered; Arlene, from the DA's office; Horace Guidry, on telephone (80-82); Alouette Guidry .
Main characters: Lew Griffin; LaVerne Adams; Don Walsh
Other characters: Dana Esmay, with Lew when he is shot, and later turns up dead herself (85); Eddie Bone, who is due to meet Lew before he is shot, then himself turns up dead (17); Buster Robinson mentioned; Lee Gardner, book editor from New York; Ray Amano, disappeared writer, used alias of Ray Adams; Hosie (referred to here as Slaughter rather than Straughter on page 31); Achille (A. C.) Boudleaux mentioned; Frankie DeNoux mentioned; Bonnie Bitler mentioned; Sam Brown, formerly of SeCure Corps; Doo-Wop mentioned; Bob Skinner, "the man who loved dead babies" and Korean war vet; Lew's mother (Mildred), stays with Lew and Verne while he convalesces, her departure (90) is the last time Lew sees her alive; Lew's dead father and sister Francy both mentioned; Josie mentioned, Don's wife (the same one as in Moth; in Fly it was Maria); Jimmie Marconi, local mafia don, whose daughter Lew Griffin had helped in the past; Joe Montagna/Joey the Mountain, a Marconi henchman; Cathy (Mary Catherine) Marconi, in flashback; Duke Heslep and co-rapist, in flashback; Bo, bartender; Crazy Jane, bar patron and telephone user; Mel Gold (86-90); Officer Tom Bonner; Group of anti-Semitic youths (105-7); Wardell Lee Sims; Ellis; Bobby; Josie/Jodie, Bobby's wife and friend of Ray Amano.
Blues Lines in the Griffin Novels
An ardent music enthusiast, Jim Sallis has not only written and edited a series of musicological works, concentrating in particular on the guitar, but he has also made frequent references throughout his Lew Griffin novels to jazz and the blues. There follows a number of blues lines that are quoted or alluded to in the Griffin books, frequently unattributed.
Jim's novels, short stories, and poems, of course, are packed with hundreds of references to writers, artists, books, films, and television programs as well, offering an on-going commentary on art, culture, and the creative process. Collectively these fragments and allusions underpin the playfulness and self-referentiality that characterizes Jim's fiction.
"Long John," I said. "Long gone, like a turkey through the corn—if I remember my blues." Fly, 37. Possible reference to Lightnin' Hopkins 'Long Gone Like a Turkey'. Sonny Terry also recorded tracks entitled 'Long John' and 'Long Gone'. There are many other Blues artists who have recorded tracks featuring the words in the title, including Billie Holiday's 'Long Gone Blues' and countless versions of 'Long Gone Lonesome Blues'.
Robert Johnson's hellhound was nipping at my heels. Fly, 73. Similar allusion in the short story 'I Saw Robert Johnson'. Reference to Robert Johnson's 'Hellhound On My Trail'.
Sun goin' down, black night gonna catch me here. Fly, 99. Echoed and/or varied in Moth (117) and Hornet (8–9; lengthier quotation of lyrics). Reference to Robert Johnson's 'Cross Road Blues'.
Stones in my passway, as Robert Johnson said. And my road seem dark as night. Moth, 22. Reference to Robert Johnson's 'Stones In My Passway'.
Sometime I live in de city, / Sometimes I live in town. / Sometime I takes a great notion / To jump into de river an' drown. Hornet, 10 (sung by Buster Robinson). Reference to Leadbelly's 'Goodnight Irene'.
Mmmmmm, mama what's the matter now. Hornet, 19 (sung by Buster Robinson). Reference to Blind Lemon Jefferson's 'Black Snake Moan'.
Buster singing about going back to Florida where you gotta plow or you gotta hoe. Hornet, 19. Reference to Lightnin' Hopkins 'Going Back to Florida'. Also recorded by Bumble Bee Slim.
Behind us Buster complained that his woman had waited until it was nine below zero and put him down for another man. Hornet, 22. Reference to Sonny Boy Williamson's 'Nine Below Zero'. Also recorded by Muddy Waters.
As Buster Robinson would have said: Long after midnight when death comes slipping in your room, you gonna need somebody on your bond. Cricket, 170. Reference to Blind Willie Johnson's 'You Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond'.
Quotes from the Griffin Novels
only a story, of course. Stories help us go on living. Stories can't hurt
anyone, can they, Harry?"
something odd was occurring. The more I wrote about Boudleaux, the less
I relied on imagination, using experiences and people of my own past,
writing ever closer to my life. Now on page ninety-seven a red-haired
nurse materialized without warning, tucking in the edges of Boudleaux's
sheets (he'd been involved in a traffic accident) as she rolled her r's.
I figured Verne would be along soon, maybe even her latest exit scene.
your books you never write about anything that's not past, done with,
And so, another book. But not about my Cajun this time. About someone I've named Lew Griffin, a man I know both very well and not at all. And I have only to end it now by writing: I went back into the house and wrote. It is midnight. The rain beats at the windows.
It is not midnight. It is not raining.
novel's true protagonist, I tell my students, is always time. With the
years, it's gotten somewhat easier to say things like that without immediately
looking over my shoulder or down at the floor. And then, of course,
you go on to talk about the flow of time in Proust, about Faulkner's sequestrations
of history, about the abrogation of time and history in Beckett.
years now, sequestered in this house, the one Vicky and I lived in together,
the one Verne often visited, I had written book after book about street
life, crime, about violence both random and purposeful, about frustration
and despair and, occasionally, vengeance. But what I wrote, all those
supposed "realistic" scenes, were only a kind of nostalgia,
a romantification, sheerest dissembling; I could never portray what it
was really like out there.
ten pages, virtually word for word as I scribbled them in the motel room
that night, became the first chapter, and the very heart, of Mole,
a book unlike anything else I had written, purely fiction in that every
character, every scene was invented, purely true in that it is in purest
form the story of all our lives.
I later used the whole thing in a novel.
said when I found you you'd likely as not be spouting something you found
in a book nobody else'd ever read."
Goytisolo writes at the end of his story, cannot arrest the flow of time.
It can only re-create set scenes, encapsulate privileged moments, arrange
memories and incidents in some arbitrary manner that, word by word, will
form a book. The unbridgeable distance between act and language, the demands
of the written text itself, inevitably and insidiously degrade faithfulness
to reality into mere artistic exercise, sincerity into mere virtuosity,
moral rigor into aesthetics. Endowed with later coherence, bolstered with
clever continuities of plot and resonance, our reconstructions of the
past will always be a kind of betrayal. Put down your pen, Goytisolo says,
break off the narrative, limit the damage: for silence alone can keep
intact our illusion of truth.
playing novelist even then, picking at pieces of his story, arranging
and rearranging them ...
had no idea any longer what it was I might be writing – memoir, essay,
biography, fiction. And as the book progressed in the following weeks
I grew forever less certain. But I found, as well, that I didn't care.
before, I'd written close to my life and at the same time from a distance.
What was true, what was not true? or true, perhaps, in some sense, having
little to do with mimicry, fact, accurate tracings of our lives? There
were deeper currents, deeper connections, surely. I fumbled after them.
back at what I've written thus far, these many twists and turns of chronology,
I wonder if, in some strange way, forgetting may not be what I've been
about here as well. Putting things down to discharge them. Working to
tuck memories safely away in the folds and trouser cuffs of time.
Look through the published books and you'll find much the same.
What I did here, in this extraordinary thing sitting beside me, is this: I quit trying. Quit trying to finesse the failures and forfeitures of my life into fiction. To tuck people I'd loved safely away in the corners of novels. Quit trying to force patterns, however comforting and fetching and artistic these patterns might be, onto the catch-as-catch-can of what I'd actually lived, the rigorous disorder of my days.
extraordinary thing is my autobiography.
what people are starting to say, is true. Maybe what those like myself
do, everything we believe in – literature, fine music, fine writing, the
arts generally – maybe none of that matters anymore. We're digging up
ruins. Quaint as archaeologists."
never do end, of course. That's their special grace. Lives end, people
die or walk away from you forever, lovers depart in moonlight with paper
bags of belongings tucked beneath arms, children disappear. Close Ulysses
and nothing has ended. Molly's story, Leopold's, Stephen's, Buck Mulligan's
– they all go on, alongside yours.
had something to do with capturing voice. All our lives, every day, hour
after hour, we're telling ourselves stories, threading events, collisions
and recollections on a string to make sense of them, making up the world
we live in. Writing's no different, you just do it from inside someone
in mind that much of what I'm telling you here is reconstructed, patched
together, shored up. Like many reconstructions, beneath the surface it
bears a problematic resemblance to the model.
started taking notes, researching my own biography. Those chinks remaining
(and they're considerable) I've filled as best I can with imagination's
caulking, till I no longer know what portion of this narrative is actual
memory, what part oral history, what part imagination.
THE CITY (generally) & NEW ORLEANS (specifically)
was as though the city's image of itself, and the ways it tried to live
up to that image, kept changing. It was Spanish, French, Italian, West
Indian, African, Colonial American; it was primarily the city of fun and
illusion, or primarily the bastion of culture in a new land; it was a
city built on the backs of slaves and simultaneously a city many of whose
important citizens were gens de couleur libre; endlessly, it adapted.
have a way of getting stuck in time here in New Orleans.
many people in this city, he seemed stuck, like a fly in amber, in some
Makes you thinks how the city itself is a kind of sprawling memory.
America, and civilization, ended here.
was the sort of abrupt border that a decade or so later we'd get used
to, think nothing of, in our cities.
RACE AND CLASS RELATIONS
See, especially, passages in Black Hornet, 95-96.
had kept us alive and more or less intact for a long time when nothing
Paranoia? You better believe it. My birthright.
know those Dracula movies you watch every chance you get, Lewis? How he
can never see himself in mirrors? Well, that's you, son – that's all of
us. We trip across this earth, work and love and raise families and fight
for what we think's right, and the whole time we're absolutely invisible.
When we're gone, there's no record we were ever even here."
siege had left in its wake a badly shaken city. There had always been
a silent accommodation here, a gentlemen's agreement that blacks and whites
would go on pursuing their parallel lives. But had the codes now changed?
didn't often find a white man offering to eat after a black one those
days, even in New Orleans.
think I emerged from that particular instance of "cooperation"
(no record of arrest, of course) with a fractured rib, broken finger,
multiple abrasions. All preexisting, of course. You know how them
that pride of yours'll kill you, Lew. The pride or the anger, I don't
know which'll get you first."
myself–what had I turned into? I could feel that wild hatred building
up inside me.
reach down and find the rage, the frustration, defeat and despair, find
that black pool just beneath the world's surface that never goes away.
You find it, you bring it up, you use it. For a while it takes you over.
You become its vehicle. What voodoo practitioners call a horse.
TIME, MEMORY, NOSTALGIA, etc.
strange how little is left of our lives once they're rendered down, once
they've started becoming history. A handful of facts, movements, conflicts;
that's all the observer sees. An uninhabited shell.
started out again, then came back and sat at the desk, staring out the
window. I felt as though I'd lost something, lost it forever, and I didn't
even know what it was, had no name for it. Those are the worst losses
we ever sustain.
I couldn't tell any longer how much of what was left was feeling, how
much only memory.
of that's very close to the truth, I suspect; part of it's what my youthful
mind made (and wanted to make) of the scaffolding of facts, the rest of
it what memory (forever more poet than reporter) has pushed into place.
thought how recent days were like older ones, going by in a blur, undistinguished,
largely unlived, so many twilights retreating into bleary dawns.
In the darkness things always go away from you. Memory holds you down while regret and sorrow kick hell out of you.
only help you'll get is a few hard drinks and morning.
into the past. Kierkegaard was right: we understand our lives (to the
extent that we understand them at all) only backwards.
Everything comes down to simple economics, however fine-spirited we are.
loosen. Memories get hung on walls or put away in the corners of drawers
and life goes on."
I myself grew older, into my early teens, I began to notice that my father
was slowly going out of focus, blurring at the edges, color washing out
to the dun grayish-green of early Polaroids. I can't be sure this is how
I saw it at the time; time's whispers are suspect, memory forever as much
poet as reporter; and perhaps this is the only way that, retrospectively,
imaginatively, I make sense for now (though a limited sense, true) of
what then bewildered me.
When you're young, history's not worth much. When you get older, whether you consider it baggage or burden, history's a large part of what you have. So a lot of this I learned, or relearned, later on.
what you lose with time, in memory, is the specificity of things, their
exact sequence. It all runs together, becomes a watery soup. Portmanteau
days, imploded years. Like a bad actor, memory always goes for effect,
abjuring motivation, consistency, good sense.
Details run together from incident to incident, year to year.
and I walked out of the bar into streets suspended timelessly somewhere
between dark and light. Everything was either blinding white or dead black,
edges leached away by gray – like in old movies. For a moment I didn't
know if it was morning or evening. And for another terrifying moment I
had no idea where I was.
later: "Things gone gray, beginning to lose edges.
The past is no insubstantial, thready thing, sunlight slanting through shutters into cool rooms, pools and standards of mist adrift at roadside, memories that flutter from our hands the instant that we open them. Rather it is all too substantial, bluntly physical, like a boulder or cement block growing ever denser, ever larger, there behind us, displacing and pushing us forward.
And yes: in its mindless, rocklike, unstoppable way, it pursues us.
"My man," Doo-Wop said to my reflection in the mirror behind the bar. Silver had worn away in patches, erasing portions of the world. "Been a while."
We'd known each other now for over thirty years. This was his standard greeting. Somethimes I'd be My man, other times Captain. Names weren't a big thing with Doo-Wop. Been a while was equally generic, since Doo-Wop had no conception of time. For him everything happened in the present. Hopi Mean Time, a friend once called it.
"Buy you a drink?"
of the ritual. New Orleans is a Catholic city, a pagan, voodoo city. It
takes ritual to its heart.
All a kind of temporal plaid.
Memory's always more poet than reporter.
at the barricades.
stepped out of time's circle, gone to Hopi Mean Time like Doo-Wop, give-and-take
of light and body's promptings my only calendar or clock.
of it's a kind of blur, you understand, what happened when, the order
thing, time's elasticity."
marched in and out much as Hosie had, appearing unannounced, just as suddenly
gone, banners bright or damp. Elsewhere in the world, wars were declared
or fought undeclared, sons left home, workers tore open fingers and drove
steel rods into their eyes, history smoothed its skirt in place over lap
been Doo-Wopped. Every day was today. I was on Hopi Mean Time.
For most of a year my life was a kind of Morse code: dots of periods and ellipses, dashes, white space. I'd think I remembered some sequence of events, then, looking back, hours later, a day, a week, I'd be unable to retrieve it, connections were lost. Sidewalks abutted bare brick walls. I'd step off the last stair of LaVerne's midtown apartment onto the levee downtown, Esplanade or Jackson Avenue, the concrete rim of Lake Pontchartrain. Faces changed or vanished before me as I went on speaking the same conversation: like some ultimate, endless compound word that finally managed to include everything.
Holes in my life.
of the year, then, for me, is gone. History never so much chronicles the
continuities of daily life as it signals the pits opening beneath, upheavals
of earth around – the ways in which that life was interrupted. My life
became history that year.
ALIENATION, EXISTENTIALISM, IDENTITY, etc.
I wondered then: what was it that started a person sinking? Was that long
fall in him (or her) from the start, in us all perhaps; or something he
put there himself, creating it over time and unwittingly just as he created
his face, his life, the stories he lived by, the ones that let him go
I guess, it wasn't that much different from the way we all make up our
lives by bits and pieces, a piece of a book here, a song title or lyric
there, scraps of people we've known, clips from movies, imagining ourselves
and living into that image, then going on to another and yet another,
improvising our way from day to day through the years we call a life.
was remembering all the women I'd loved or thought I would. Thinking how
that felt at first, how the feelings declined, how they stayed around
for a while like locust husks on a tree and then one day just weren't
was, after all, a kind of rebirth. No home, no work or career, just a
lot of loose connection: a whole life to build from scratch. The terms
tabula rasa and palimpsest drifted into my mind from courses
taken long ago at college. And what was it, that Irish guy who in French,
something like: I can't go on . . . I'll go on.
visit. That's all you allow, Lew. Whether years or a couple of days, always
only a visit to your life."
We finished in silence, the past, or future, shouldering us quietly apart.
are important. Things are what we call them. By naming, we understand.
what life mostly is, all the in-between stuff."
country – whatever your special interest: law, liberal politics, magazine
sales, white supremacy – was rife with such networks, electronic and otherwise.
Often I imagined they might represent this skewed nation's only true intelligence,
skein after skein of fragile webs piling one atop another until a rudimentary
nervous system came into being.
you stand there peering off the edge long enough, whoever you are, things
start shifting on you. You start seeing shapes down there that change
what socialization is, Clare. Most of the messages – maybe all the most
important ones – are silent."
inchoate equation between the masking and forced revelry of Mardi Gras,
the expert self-deception Alouette recognized in herself, and my own in
this account, suggests itself. Finally there's little enough difference
once said that life is all conjunctions, just one damn thing after another.
But so much of it's not connected. You're sliding along, hit a bump and
come down in a life you don't recognize. Every day you head out a dozen
different directions, become a dozen different people; some of them make
it back home that night, others don't.
takes a while for us to realize that our lives have no plot. At first
we imagine ourselves into great struggles of darkness and light, heroes
in our Levi's or pajamas, impervious to the gravity that pulls down all
others. Later on we contrive scenes in which the world's events circle
like moons about us – like moths about our porch lights. Then at last,
painfully, we begin to understand that the world doesn't even acknowledge
our existence. We are the things that happen to us, the people we've known,
along we'll know all the answers, further along we'll understand why.
Never as invisible as we think. Us or our motives.
were dredging the dark waters for me. I drifted up again, weightless,
up toward the light.
collectively, we struggle to rise out of the slough of ourselves, strive
upwards (like a man trapped in water beneath ice, swimming up in the air
pocket just under, where at least he can breathe) towards something better,
something more than we truly are. That's the measure of grace given us.
But few of us individually, and seldom does the collective, manage it.
live metaphorically, striving always to match our lives to images we've
accepted or imagined for them – family man, true believer, gangster –
contriving these containers, a succession of them, that preserve us, define
us, that keep us from spilling out and give us shape, but rarely fit.
hung up thinking how if you weren't careful life could turn into a long
chain of letters, one after another, till one day you looked around and
there was nothing left, no trace of all the things you'd waited for, pushed
ahead, done without.
"Anyway," she said. "Richard says you're trying to find yourself?"
"Aren't we all."
"Frankly, I don't think most of us ever even notice we're missing."
time of night, this circle of light with music welling up outside, this
solitude–we were all old friends.
we must learn to put our distress signals in code, perhaps it's not because
that way lies communication, perhaps it's only because the codes seem
so much more meaningful, so much more fraught, than are our lives. Because
we have somehow to imagine ourselves larger that the sun's footprint.
And if we can't have meaning, then at least we'll have the appearance
of meaning: its promise, heft, import.
want the hole to take over, don't you, Lew? It's not enough any more just
to stand close and peer over the edge. You want the hole to come after
I never lost sight of how perilous every moment of our life is, how frail
and friable the tissue holding self and world together.
I thought again how, because of poverty, polarity and crime, we've become a nation without real cities – one, instead, of fenced villages shoved up against one another – and how, because we have no cities, because increasingly we're afraid to venture out and engage the world and have in our playpens toys like TVs and on-line computers that we believe connect us but instead render us more apart, ever more distanced and discrete, we've become a nation without culture.
suspect, of course, in my liberal heart of hearts, that it's all intimately
connected. That losing sense of community and culture irrevocably erodes
knew what I was asking. That's the thing about old friends. So many of
your most important conversations are silent.
well. Most of our lives are strictly top-forty. Same songs over and over."
always we go on living our lives forward, attempting to understand them
If indeed there's something at our centers, how do we find our way to it? The doors that should lead there open into closets and storage space places, onto dead corridors, back to the outside.
our lives, every day, we constantly remake ourselves, reinvent ourselves,
layer after layer, mask after mask. Maybe when finally we peel off all
the masks there's nothing left. Maybe Doo-Wop in his own timeless way
is right: we're nothing but the stories we tell ourselves and others.
never found out exactly what it was that had hurt my friend so – something
working in him a long time, that finally found purchase. In future years
I'd come to recognize similar things scrabbling for footholds within myself.
They were there already, of course, even then. Sometimes at night I heard
was someone who never allowed herself anger, never expressed her bottomless
disappointment with life. You asked her, everything was always fine. So
the pain and despair had to squeeze its way out, and it did: everywhere.
Look at the same thing day after day, you no longer see it, it goes away. To see again, one way or another you have to go away. Then when you come back, for just a while, your eyes work again.
a lesson I took to heart, one I'd carry with me the rest of my life.
all know it's out there, just at the edge of our vision, past the circle
of light from our campfires. Camus said only one thing is necessary, to
come to terms with death, after which all things are possible; but we
go on failing to meet its eyes, ever dissembling, dressing it up in period
costume, caging it in music or drama, gelding it to murder mysteries:
how clever we are.
are any of our lives but the shapes we force them into? Memory doesn't
come to us of its own; we go after it, pull it into sunlight and make
of it what we need, what we're driven towards, what we imagine, changing
the world again and again with each new quarry, each descent, each morning.
PI's in the novels have it all wrong. You don't have to go out and track
people down. You just wait around the house and sooner or later the people
come to you.
"You ever find any of these folks you show up asking me about?"
of them, sure."
went back through the trees to the outbuilding, where I failed to find
the clues any good detective surely would have.
and signals everywhere, if you just knew how to read them.
not something you see too often on TV or in the movies: the detective
standing up with grease dribbling down his chin to apprehend a suspect.
been telling you for a while now that it was time you actually found
someone–one of those people you're forever looking for."
stammered on between the time I spoke with Gardner and the time that messenger
showed up. One thing that didn't happen was sleep, but I figured
bags under my eyes and that glazed look (not to mention liquor on my breath)
put me squarely in the PI ballpark. Tradition's important.
of the distinctions of this addiction, because only true alcoholics have
them, are blackouts. We go on moving through the physical world, driving
cars, carrying on conversations and cooking meals, with whole banks of
relays and higher functions closed down, unwitting passengers in our own
knew the alcoholic's body for some reason doesn't metabolize intoxicants
the same way other people's do. That the addiction lodges itself where
reality curves gently away from appearance, and thrives there, pushing
them ever further apart. That all his life, whatever he does, a physical,
psychological, ontological dialogue will be going on inside the alcoholic,
and that as long as he continues to drink, however controlled it appears,
sooner or later, a day, ten years, or twenty, he'll wake up once again
with the world quivering terribly behind the thinnest of membranes, thoughts
bending slowly, unstoppably away from one another in the terrible gravity
of alcohol's black sun.
along the way, a lot earlier than I wanted to think about, alcohol's smile
had become a grin, then just bared teeth. Whole chunks of my life had
fallen into that maw. Friends, intentions, memories, years.
those years, almost every night, I'd wake at two or three in the morning,
heart pounding, to the call of sirens across the city. A mass of vines
swinging in the wind would make a hunchback, human-shaped shadow on the
wall, or rain in the trees would sound like the feet of a thousand small
living things coming towards me in the dark outside. Naked and sick, I
would stand at the window, promising myself the whole thing wasn't going
to start up again, thinking I won't, knowing I would.
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