Essays Against the Man
In that sea of tranquility between his cohabitations with a she-male named Rachel and the performance artist Laurie Anderson, the late Lou Reed wed Sylvia Morales, who seems to have had a benign domestic influence on the notoriously prickly Reed. In the midst of a song celebrating his mentor Delmore “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” Schwartz, Reed committed this verse: “I’ve really got a lucky life / My writing, my motorcycle, and my wife.”
Schwartz, were he not dreaming his final dream by then, might have cringed, but it’s a sweet sentiment, and though I’m no biker that damned tune has been swirling round my head. (If deafness is an occupational hazard of rock musicians, what about the damage inflicted by rock and roll rhymesters on mere listeners? Shouldn’t Steve Miller be liable for reparations?)
Like Lucky Lou, I marvel at my good fortune. For 30 years I’ve been paid—not well, but about what I deserve—to write, which is my sideways exordium to letting you know that the race to the remainder bin is on with the publication this summer of a retrospective of my work bearing the ominously prolix title Poetry Night at the Ballpark and Other Scenes From an Alternative America: Writings, 1986-2014.
Chronologically, the first piece is a Reason profile of Alaska’s Libertarian Party legislator Andre Marrou, who looked like a cheerful Lenin and went on to be the party’s standard-bearer in the 1992 presidential campaign. When I hear that we are poised today on the rim of a Libertarian Moment, I wonder just what you’d call that era when Ed Clark rang up 12 percent of the Alaskan vote in the 1980 presidential race, and the Alaska legislature featured multiple LP members, among them Dick Randolph, who tallied 15 percent in the 1982 gubernatorial election.
Looking back neither in anger nor anguish but bewildered gratitude, I burble with thanks to Reason’s Bob Poole and Marty Zupan, who hired me all those years ago: me, a 25-year-old kid with a liberal Democratic (well, Moynihanesque, which is not quite the same thing) pedigree whose influences were a gallimaufry of the Beats, the local colorists of the 19th century, late ’70s and early ’80s punk rock, and a Loco Foco/Sons of the Wild Jackass/Huey Long-soaked populism—tendencies quite foreign to Reason’s techno-libertarian gestalt. The ways of Reason, thank God, are not always rational. I met Lucine, my wife, at Reason; our daughter, Gretel, is thus a sweet child of Reason.
I suppose back then I’d have called a book like this latest one a chrestomathy, swiping from H.L. Mencken, whose almost total eclipse in post-9/11 America speaks volumes about our cowardly and conformist political-journalism culture. Any chronicler of the sordid scramble for power whose work doesn’t set off a staccato-burst of trigger warnings should be buried alive under an avalanche of Joseph Kraft columns.
So many of the writers I admire ended their lives in despair or dyspepsia, atrabilious old men cursing the coming darkness and recalling their salad days as an Eden of freethought and jollity. I concede that only yesteryear what are today heresies were often said aloud. Thirty years ago eminently respectable sorts could and did suggest a U.S. withdrawal from NATO or doubt the deity of Abraham Lincoln without inviting disbelieving stares or hurled chunks of obloquy. The sun was sunnier, the moon was moonier, and the world was younger than today. Hell, go back another decade or two and you’ll find cogent arguments—courtesy of folks like Paul Goodman, Pat Moynihan, and Nathan Glazer—in Commentary and felicitous prose in the CIA-funded Encounter.
But the fog of memory obscures. The funhouse-mirror images of communism and anticommunism had warped both right and left, and the burking blanket of the Vital Center consensus exempted shatteringly significant developments (e.g., the shuttering of small public schools via consolidation, or the massive corporate subsidy and aesthetic defacement known as the Interstate and Defense Highway System) from scrutiny. The Greatest Generation, to borrow a cynical marketing slogan, demolished our cities and depeopled our countryside. So perhaps ours is an age of renewal that only looks like decline. Historic preservation, localism, New Urbanism, craft brewing, homeschooling, DIY music and filmmaking, the reflorescence of regional literature… many rays of light pierce the gloom.
I suppose it exposes my chronic eupepsia or delusionary optimism but the looking backward occasioned by this first—and probably last—collection of mine has been the source of thankfulness rather than rueful moping.
Mencken, Rothbard, Vidal, Abbey: the essayists I was reading 30 years ago knew, as Mark Twain said, that irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense. Their sons and daughters shall inherit the mirth. As for me, I’m up for another round.