Sunday, April 8, 2012

An American Tragedy and All the King's Men

These two books are American Classics, they were written in the same century, they both put a microscope to the greasy spots on America's face, but their similarities end there.  They coexist here because of a high school teacher who told me that they were the first and fourth best American novels ever written.  He never said which was which, and I neglected to ask about the second or the third. He had a writer's heart, so I guess that Warren sat first, that Mark Twain and Kerouac shared second, while Dreiser crept into fourth.  However it went, I read 1 and 4 over freshman year.

Which was also the year I was introduced to weed and skateboarding and Grand Theft Auto, ditching school, parking lot hacky-sack, my middle finger, and the whole sad world of suburban counter-culture in general.  It was a strange confluence.    One particular afternoon, again on the deck with a cherry cola, I was following Clyde Griffiths through his uncle's factory and sharing his wonder at the guts of industry and progress, when around the corner of the house loped three shady dogs with half-open eyes and boards on their shoulders.  They asked me what I was doing, I said "I'm reading An American Tragedy," they said "Fuck off," and we went down to the middle school to film ourselves as we jumped from things, broke other things, and smoked stuff.  The school had a special dumster for grease and fat waste and we held our heads inside until we gagged or vomited.  The loading dock was a four foot drop and we broke ourselves on the gravelly tar until a bleeding scrodum forced us to relent.  After pooling our resources for two cans of soda from a vending machine the day was out, and I staggered back home and rejoined Clyde in the factory, no longer remembering why he was there or who the other guy was. 

This sort of thing happened frequently, and I remember entertaining the odd conceit of a double life.  Adam Spielman, smoke-head by day and great-reader-of-books by night.  The conviction that my awesomeness was unprecedented seems natural enough, but I do wonder at the gravity I gave my ability to read books.

At any rate, it might be noted that this is an imperfect method of absorbing literature.  I object to that note.  Whether by accident or because a certain Mr. F was savvier than he looked, these two books at that time provided a context for the angst and the futility and the hopelessness I felt everywhere around me but couldn't give a face.  Watching Clyde struggle through the echelons of society, working so hard and wanting so badly to grasp that top rung, pulling against the inertias of class and human nature, letting all that ambition warp him to the point of murder -- and drifting along with Jack Burden, from hotel to hotel, tethered to this big charismatic corrupt bastard, just falling through and falling through until finally a bullet stopped the train -- they were the face.  I was a counter-culture anti-whatever with Anarchy tattoed on my cotton T-shirt; there was nothing to be against and I was against it anyway and Dreiser and Warren put a form to my half-baked discontent.  School was no longer bullshit for the sake of saying bullshit: it was bullshit because the heirarchy was entrenched and the middle class was the new peasantry and the public educational system was set up to manufacture a workforce.    Capitalism was just another way to keep you down, democracy was a carnival, the American Dream was a slave with a house. 

It's the system, man.

There was a whole body of work dedicated to the unrest I felt, to the apathy that seemed like the only sane response.  The Grapes of Wrath and The Catcher in the Rye, which I read around the same time, added more fuel to a growing conviction that the text book narrative was propaganda at best, that working hard was for suckers.  The system pushed Clyde over the edge, the system corrupted Willie Stark, the system starved the oakies.  The only way to avoid the system was to emulate Holden's misanthropy.  At the time that meant long greasy hair, smoking weed between classes, listening to anything with explicit lyrics, burning history text books, banging out power chords on an electric guitar.  Anything to get through unsullied.  The system can't kill what the system can't find.

At least, that was my thinking as far as I remember it.  The descent to that place was inevitable, and the first and fourth best American novels were a steady patch of ground in a vague and shifting landscape.  The broader context they provided, and the scope of American Tragedy in particular, is part of the reason I didn't get completely lost.  I think I pulled myself out of that funk sooner and with more alacrity having witnessed Clyde's destruction, than I would have without it.  Which doesn't have to make sense if it's true. 



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